Although it is probably time to make some changes to the Helena Civic Center Board, the Helena City Commission would be doing more harm than good by permanently dissolving the 47-year-old advisory group without replacing it with something more effective.
During an unannounced discussion in November, the mayor and city commission directed the city manager to draft a resolution to end the volunteer advisory board due to a variety of concerns. After spending many hours talking with Mayor Wilmot Collins, Commissioner Andres Haladay, Civic Center Board members, attorneys and other involved parties, however, we are not convinced that the board has done anything to warrant such a drastic move.
Haladay said Civic Center Board President Judy Kline’s comments during a Sept. 10 board meeting pushed him to propose that the group be dissolved. According to the minutes from that meeting, Kline told the board members she feared many of them would lose their positions when they are up for reappointment in March if there were no changes to the city commission.
Haladay, who is an attorney, accused Kline of illegal electioneering during a government meeting and said the city commission could be held liable for what he believes to be a violation of Montana law.
We ran his argument by professor Michelle Bryan of the University of Montana School of Law, who said she does not believe the state statues Haladay cited apply to the volunteer advisory board under its bylaws the city adopted in 1988. Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in open records and open meetings laws, said Kline's comments were an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment.
It’s also worth noting that the city commission itself has violated open meetings rules on multiple occasions, according to Meloy, and we have yet to see the governing body take any responsibility for that.
Haladay told us several civic center staff members have resigned because of bad interactions with the board, but he declined to provide their names due to privacy concerns. Gery Carpenter, retired community facilities director for the city, said he is not aware of that happening during his 29 years as the civic center director.
Haladay accused the board of resisting the city commission's direction to focus less on protecting and preserving the civic center building and more on bringing in new programming. Kline and other board members said they never received such direction from the city commission, and that members of the governing body rarely attend their regularly scheduled board meetings. In fact, only one city commissioner, Ed Noonan, who is leaving the commission in January, showed up to the city’s November “listening session” on the possible consolidation of various city advisory boards.
Haladay also raised concerns that the board had its own bank account for the revenue it generated by hosting various fundraisers. Kline said the board was not previously aware that this was a problem but closed the account and gave all of the money to city bookkeepers as soon as city officials raised concerns about it.
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It seems that every other city commission since 1972 has found some value in the Civic Center Board, and two of the four current commissioners who have raised concerns are leaving the board in less than a month.
We don’t believe we have heard the real reason the city commission is considering dissolving the board, but we suspect is has something to do with the board’s recent criticism of city commission decisions.
The proposal to dissolve the board came three months after the city commission approved a new city structure that moved the Helena Civic Center under the purview of the new Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department, a decision that was roundly criticized by Kline and other board members both at public meetings and on social media. We can see why some city commissioners might take offense to that, but they must realize that it is the Civic Center Board's job to stand up for the civic center.
What’s best for the civic center may not always be what’s best for the city as a whole, so the city commission can and should oppose the board’s recommendations at times. That doesn’t mean the board should be dissolved, which would cause the city to lose the popular Feb Fest event and Christmas Gift Shows hosted by the board, around $25,000-$35,000 in annual revenue the board generates for civic center improvements, and the advice of some of the fiercest advocates of this iconic Helena building.
The costs far outweigh any potential benefits of dissolving the Civic Center Board, and the city commission should approach the issues with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.
Most of the current problems can no doubt be solved through better communication, as the board members cannot be expected to achieve goals they have not been given. Based on the considerable time we spent listening to the concerns of both sides, we believe it would also make sense for the Civic Center Board to be reformatted to look like all other city boards, which have fewer members and term limits.
Every member of the Civic Center Board was put there by Helena's mayor and city commission, and the mayor and city commission can opt not to reappoint any individual members who are not open to any clearly defined goals and objectives they establish. Helena is home to many people who have a successful background in arts programming and fundraising who would make great additions to the board if and when new members are needed. (Outgoing Commissioner Noonan comes to mind.)
Our mayor and city commissioners have an opportunity to improve upon the work their predecessors have done to keep the Helena Civic Center a beautiful and viable performing arts and cultural venue, which could not be replicated in today’s financial climate.
Forever disbanding the Civic Center Board without even trying to address the problems would be both shortsighted and irresponsible. If the city commission rushes to do so before the two new city commissioners are sworn in next month, we hope the incoming commissioners will work with the two incumbent commissioners, the mayor and city staff to re-establish the board under an improved framework with clear direction.