Havre to vote on city government
May 5, 2014
Havre voters will decide during the primary whether they want to form a commission to study the way the city governs itself.
Similar votes will take place in cities across the Hi-Line and Montana.
If voters agree, a three-member commission will be elected in the November general election. The commission will come up with a plan after a series of public hearings and public information sessions, said Dan Clark, executive director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University.
The panel can come decide to form a city manager form of government or make a host of other changes, he said.
Then, in November 2015, voters would get the chance to accept or reject the proposed changes, he said.
What form the changes would take is up to the commission, he said.
An increasing number of cities have adopted a charter form of government, he said, which, in effect, gives the communities home rule, freeing them from many state mandates.
Cities without a charter — including all of those on the Hi-Line — have to govern themselves within the confine of state statutes, he said. Governments working under a charter form can take a wide variety of actions unless they are specifically prohibited by state laws.
Many cities have adopted a charter form of government but have left the government structures largely intact, he said.
Others have opted to move to a city manager form of government, Clark said.
Though the specifics vary, he said, city managers run the day-to-day operations of the city under the supervision of the council.
The managers appoint department heads, such as the fire chief, the finance officer and the public works director, he said. Sometimes, council members have to ratify the appointments.
In Havre, the mayor makes the appointments and council has to vote to accept them.
Some cities have adopted a compromise plan, he said. Once the city switches to a charter form of government, the council, on its own, can hire a chief administrative officer to run daily operations under the supervision of the mayor.
But the city manager proposal is the one that has garnered the most attention in Havre.
Councilman Allen “Woody” Woodwick, D-3rd Ward, the senior member of the council, says he favors forming a commission to review possible changes.
“It never hurts to study it,” he said.
But Woodwick says he will have to be sold on the idea of a city manager.
First, he said, he is afraid of the cost.
Just as important, he said, he fears that Havre will become a first step for many city managers.
“Once they get a job here, they will start looking around for another job,” he said.
Indeed, Clark said many small cities are faced with a high turnover rate in the manager’s post.
Many larger cities, such as Bozeman, have flourished under a city manager, he said.
Polson has faced some turmoil, he said, and some people — but certainly not all — would like to revert to the mayor-council form of government.
But Councilman Andrew Brekke, R-4th Ward, said as government becomes more complex, it is hard to expect part-time elected officials to understand the intricate details of municipal law and municipal finances.
Topics such as employee union contracts, economic development and financial dealings might be better off in the hands of professionals, he said. Brekke said Havre is the largest city in the state without a city manager form of government.
The charter and the city manager form of government have been a hard sell on the Hi-Line in recent years.
The Montana Constitution, adopted in 1972, calls for a referendum on the issue every 10 years.
Since 1972, Havre, Chinook and Harlem have twice voted to form a commission and twice rejected it.
Twenty years ago, Havre voters decided to form a commission. The panel proposed a city manager form of government and added two additional options to decide on.
Voters favored a proposal to have nonpartisan elections, in 1995, and opposed a proposal to require a residency mandate for city employees.
But the overall proposal was rejected handily, 1,578 to 802.
Clark said some cities have formed commissions that make more modest changes in the form of government.
For instance, many smaller communities are questioning whether they should elect council members at large rather than by districts.
“In a city like Harlem, you can throw a stone virtually from one end of the city to the other,” he said. “Should elections be by district when they are so small?” he said. “Some communities are saying no.”
In large cities, such as Billings and Great Falls, having representatives elected from more defined neighborhoods seems to make more sense, he said.
A similar vote will take place in Hill and Blaine counties on whether they should form commissions to review their governments.
Counties already have more leeway in their operations, so the calls for charter form of government or revisions in the governmental structure generally garner less support.
Brekke said he favored a commission, if only to create a charter and give the government more flexibility.