Fresh from a three-day training session for Montana mayors last week, Havre Mayor Bob Rice says some things will change around city government for the rest of his term.
Rice said Tuesday he intends to keep better order during City Council meetings, provide information to the public more readily and be more involved in the city's annual budgeting process.
The first-ever Montana Mayors' Academy was put on by the Local Government Center at Montana State University-Bozeman and the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority. The center offers training for mayors and other city officials. The academy was intended to "increase mayors' knowledge and understanding of the governing roles and responsibilities as well as the legal limits of authority" and to help them network with other mayors, a press release about the academy said.
Rice said one of the things he learned was to maintain better decorum during meetings.
"I want to try to be a little more official," he said. "If you use decorum in your chamber, hopefully the audience will do the same."
That means addressing the council members more formally - "Councilperson Pierson" instead of "Rick" or "Mr. Pierson," for example.
It also means Rice will be more strict about enforcing order during City Council meetings.
"I will demand that you give us the same respect we give you," Rice said Monday night before the section of the City Council meeting reserved for public comment. "I must also ask you to take into consideration that the interruption or the disorderly conduct of a public hearing is susceptible to being cited, so I fully plan on enforcing that."
After the meeting, Rice said he learned in Bozeman that state law allows him to do that. State law says "disturbing or disrupting any lawful assembly or public meeting" qualifies as disorderly conduct.
"I didn't know I could do it before," he said. "That's one of the advantages of being educated when (mayors) go to these things."
Rice said he doesn't think there have been instances that qualify as disorderly conduct during council meetings so far, but there have been times when he should have maintained more control.
"I think on a couple of occasions I've allowed too much latitude with audience members talking to the council and at each other," he said. Rice said he brought up the issue in Bozeman partly because of occasions when audience members have argued with each other or with council members.
At the Feb. 17 council meeting, for example, local landlords Jim Treperinas and Cameron Worstell each had a brief argument with Annmarie Robinson of Bear Paw Development Corp. about whether the city should make renters, rather than landlords, responsible for buying water from the city.
When Rice asked about the incident at the academy, he was advised that he should have prevented the situation by taking better control of the meeting.
He said that in the future if someone gets out of hand, he will give the person a verbal warning. If the person persists, he will give a second verbal warning. If that is ineffective, he will call for a recess and ask the police chief to give the person a citation. The person could even be escorted out of the chamber, he said.
"I'm hoping everyone in there is going to be very professional, and we can get business done."
Havre resident Charles Grant, who routinely makes comments during the open section of the meeting and often during other agenda items as well, said afterward that he thought the mayor's statement was a threat.
"I've never been unruly or disorderly," he said, adding that he thinks the law could be misused to stifle legitimate protest.
"If they didn't want to hear something, they could declare you unruly and disorderly," Grant added.
Rice said Tuesday that he wasn't singling out Grant.
"I don't have an ax to grind with anybody," he said. "I know Charlie has the right to be vocal, but he doesn't have the right to disrupt my meeting. Nor does anybody else."
Rice said he also learned that state law authorizes mayors to play a greater role in the budgeting process than he has had in his first two years in office.
Previously, he said, city department heads have met with the council to work out departmental budgets. Rice said he intends to participate more with the council in the budget process this year.
Rice also said he learned that Havre is doing well compared with other cities in the state when it comes to infrastructure and to relations between the mayor and the council.
He said he wants to be more open with information that's considered public under state law.
"I'm going to try to work in unison with the council on being a little more informative" with the public, he said. "I want to be a little more forthright in getting the word out."
For example, he said he learned at the conference that the resumes of the finalists for the chief of police position should be made public. He said he will provide those documents to the Havre Daily News.
Rice is in the process of filing the job, which became vacant when Chief Kevin Olson resigned to become head of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena. Four members of the department so far have applied: Assistant Police Chief Mike Barthel, Lts. George Tate and Stan Martin, and police officer Terry Frandsen. Barthel has been named interim police chief and Tate has been named interim assistant police chief.
Rice said he was also interested in having a town meeting and starting to publish his quarterly newsletter again.
The Mayors' Academy was the third training session Rice has attended since he became mayor. Unlike some previous Havre mayors, Rice said, he had not served on the City Council before he was elected mayor, so he had to learn a lot from scratch.
By the time he finishes his term in the fall of 2005, Rice said, he will have learned all the things about being a mayor that he didn't know when he came in.
"I'll know how to be a mayor and I'll be leaving," said Rice, who said he does not plan to run again.
"You never say never, but as of right now I'd have to say I'm not going to," he said.
The amount of knowledge mayors need could be an argument for a form of city government that has a council and a city manager, he said. In that form of government, the mayor serves a ceremonial purpose but doesn't head the executive branch of government.
In the primary elections this June, Havre voters will decide whether to establish a special commission to study the efficiency of local government. The commission could recommend, among other things, that the city adopt the form of government in which a hired city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of the city.
Rice said the idea has merit, but that city managers' salaries are expensive, often between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
"A city the size of Havre, I'm not sure we could handle that," he said, adding that he thinks most people in Havre favors the government it's got now.
"I would tell people to look at both sides," he said.