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The Helena Civic Center

Helena Civic Center operations could be placed under a different department under a change being considered by the Helena City Commission. 

In a unanimous vote Monday night, Helena's city commission approved the first passage of an ordinance that would confirm several organizational changes already put in place by the city manager. 

Two changes are only in name: the Administrative Services department would be renamed the Finance Department, and Parks and Recreation would become the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department.

Several other departments will see more substantive changes.

Public Works would be operating in two new divisions: Transportation and Public Works. Transportation would deal with streets, snow-plowing, parking and other outward-facing roles while Public Works would deal with water, wastewater and their infrastructure.

Those changes have been in place for the past few months, as City Manager Ana Cortez explained that she has the authority to dictate who reports to who in the city.

Members of the public who commented at Monday's meeting were most interested in how those changes would affect the Helena Civic Center, a venerable institution that houses arts, music and the annual Festival of Trees.

The changes would move the civic center under the purview of the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department. Helena Civic Center Advisory Board members came out to ask the city commission to not make that change because they fear it will eventually destroy the civic center.

Cortez said the change just means that Byron Dike, the civic center manager, would no longer report to her, but would report to Kristi Ponozzo, the parks, recreation and open lands department head. 

"There are no changes in fees, no changes in staff, no changes in programming, no changes in the color of the civic center," Cortez said.

Members of the civic center's advisory board also voiced their alarm in a letter to the Independent Record recently. 

"How shortsighted, to place the Civic Center under the purview of a NEW Director of Parks and Recreation, whose forte is open spaces and parks. What qualifications does this unsuspecting NEW hire bring to the operation of an event venue?," the advisory board wrote. "We fear that it’s a deliberate setting up of the Civic Center for a failure that will result in the building’s falling into disrepair. When this happens, we fear that the City Commission will find the repairs too costly, and the building will slide down a slippery slope to oblivion."

Judy Kline, the president of the civic center's advisory board, repeated her concerns about those potential changes Monday evening. 

"This is not like moving chess pieces on a board, this is like undoing a tightly knit sweater," Kline said. 

Gary Carpenter, an advisory board member, said he was concerned about the potential for losing people who worked at the civic center and had vital expertise in running the facility. 

Commissioner Kali Wicks said she wanted to make sure more people would learn and store that vital knowledge in the future. If they don't, she said, "that's how the civic center dies."

Wicks said she wanted to make sure new employees were "cross-trained on all parts of the civic center" to make sure the facility would be functioning for a long time.

Commissioner Ed Noonan gave an impassioned defense of the decision to move the civic center's oversight to the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department.

"It is one of the crucial signs in our community of where we come from," Noonan said.

Noonan said the change in department was a "great, new opportunity" for the civic center. He said there had always been conflict between facilities and mission, but he believes moving the civic center to a department equipped to handle public-facing spaces and places is an opportunity to focus on the arts. 

"It doesn't mean we're abandoning it," Noonan said of the change. "It's a jewel of our community."

Cortez said the city was planning to look for partners in the coming months.

"We may receive them and we may not receive them," Cortez said about finding partners through the Request for Proposal process. "We have to cross those bridges when we come to them ... it's premature to make assumptions about privatization."

Cortez reiterated that the city does not have any private partners taking over any operations of the civic center. 

A public hearing and the final vote are planned for Aug. 26.

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