Page One News at a Glance
By Michael Howell
Westmont Developers Inc. has filed suit against Ravalli County over the denial of the Aspen Springs subdivision. The largest subdivision ever proposed in the county, it would have created 671 residences on 643 lots on 392 acres east of Florence in the Eight Mile area. The developer wants the county commissioners' decision to be reversed, charging that their decision was "arbitrary and capricious."
The developer alleges that the Commissioners' decision was not based upon fact or applicable law and failed to meet statutory timelines for certain determinations and failed to follow procedures governing public hearings. The developer also claims that the county's subdivision regulations unlawfully discriminate against the developer of subdivisions greater than 20 lots in size. The developer also charged that the denial of one variance request concerning road requirements destroyed the economic viability of the project. He asks for reimbursement of his costs.
The developer also charges in his suit that the recently passed Interim Zoning Initiative, which limits development to one house per two acres, is in violation of the state's Subdivision and Platting Act and should not apply to the subdivision.
By Michael Howell
The Stevensville School Board meeting of Tuesday, November 14, was heavily attended by the public. Many of those in attendance were teachers working at the school. On the assumption that most people were there over concerns about agenda items at the end of a very long list, a motion was granted at one point to move those agenda items forward. They included, first, a grievance filed by the Stevensville Teachers Association (STA) against the School Board and, secondly, an "employee performance" issue.
At the last minute, trustee Ed Cummings also requested that a third item be moved forward having to do with keeping minutes in executive session, since one of the other items was liable to be discussed in executive session.
The Board agreed to move the third item forward and consider it first. Without objection the Board voted unanimously to keep a record, unavailable to the public, of what transpired in the closed session.
Then, the Board listened to a lengthy list of grievances filed on behalf of the STA. Most of the grievances had to do with the Board of Trustees recent handling of a Title IX Complaint. Those complaints, having to do with sexual harassment, are handled in private. Any decision made regarding the complaint may be appealed to a different level, up to the Board of Trustees, with associated timelines both for filing an appeal and in rendering a decision.
STA argued, in a written grievance, that the School Board was violating the rights of due process of the teacher involved in the Title IX complaint at issue. That complaint was filed on May 25, 2006. The initial decision in that complaint was made by the Principal. That decision was appealed to the Superintendent. The Superintendent made his decision in the case on July 15, 2006. No appeal of that decision was made by the complainant. Since the decision was not appealed to the level of the School Board and the timeline for doing so expired in September, argues STA, the Board has no right to place the matter on its agenda. STA accuses the Board of discussing that teacher in relation to that complaint at two closed meetings held in September without the teacher or STA being properly notified and given the opportunity to present a defense.
STA contends that all of the last three closed sessions held by the Board, including the latest review of Superintendent Dennis Kimzey and the upcoming agenda item at the current meeting titled "employee performance," all have to do with the handling of the same Title IX complaint.
"One or more Board members is or has been championing this complaint by submitting it for discussion as an agenda item even though it has not been appropriately appealed to Level Four," wrote STA, calling it a violation of due process.
STA also accuses the Board of violating the Board's own policy a number of times and thus violating the Collective Bargaining Agreement with school teachers.
"Most of the policy problems that we see in this situation, and others, represent either a disregard of chain of command or a disregard of established procedure," writes STA.
STA also accused the Board of trying to circumvent the established procedures of evaluating employee performance in the evaluation that was scheduled next on the agenda.
"If the building administrator finds the teacher's performance to be satisfactory," writes STA, "the Board cannot arbitrarily call in the teacher for an 'employee review’' i.e. evaluation."
STA President Stacy Hall said, "Our concern is this grievance taking on a life of its own."
Trustee Wayne Stanford expressed disagreement, saying that two executive sessions were held but that no names were mentioned. He expressed doubts about the validity of the grievance.
Trustee Ed Cummings said that the Board's interest in examining how a Title IX complaint was handled is legitimate because failure to handle them correctly can jeopardize federal funding.
Chairman Jim Cloud said that the Board, at any point it wants, can ask for more information on an issue.
"It may not always be wise," said Cloud. "But in this instance there was enough concern to put it on the agenda." He said that it was not regarding a grievance but simply to get more information about an employee.
"There is no witch hunt going on here," said Cloud.
Cummings said, "What about the proposition that Kimzey has dealt with the complaint and his decision should not be touched at this time?"
Trustee Kirk Thompson said he thought the Board had a right to make an evaluation of Kimzey's decision, but trustee Marcia Babowicz said that she did not think it should be on the agenda.
Cloud asked if anyone had a motion of any kind to make in response to what they had heard concerning the STA's grievance. No motion was forthcoming and the Board moved on to the next agenda item which involved the issue of "Employee Performance" and was closed to the public. Cloud said that the teacher being evaluated had been notified and the meeting was being closed to respect that teacher's right to privacy.
Upon emerging from the closed evaluation, Cloud asked the Board if anyone had a motion to make concerning what had been discussed in the closed session. No motion was forthcoming and the Board moved on to other business.
In another matter, the Board of Trustees considered a letter submitted by Transportation Director Paul Ludington, requesting that school bus drivers be allowed to pick up elementary school children living in the Lone Rock District and deliver them to Stevensville Elementary School if the school bus route passes through the Lone Rock District on its way, picking up high school students in the area.
The problem is that the Stevensville School District and the Lone Rock School District have a contractual agreement which prohibits Stevensville School buses from picking up elementary students in the Lone Rock District and delivering them to the Stevensville School, except for those who are certified for transportation purposes due to special needs that can only be met at the Stevensville School.
Ludington claimed that the situation has created a public safety hazard with some elementary school kids living in the Lone Rock District that have been attending Stevensville School and using the bus being left unattended at the bus pick up site. He said that if he refuses to let the child board the bus, it is not certain that anyone will be at home, if the child successfully returned there.
One woman in the audience who lives in the Lone Rock District and has two children currently riding the bus to Stevensville said that she felt deceived because she was told by a realtor when she purchased her property that she was "on the borderline" and that her children could attend ether school district.
Lone Rock School representative on the board, Wayne Stanford, spoke strongly of the need to honor the contract between the two school districts, which means not transporting students that don't meet the requirements for exception in the contract.
After some discussion, trustee Cummings moved that the status quo be maintained, that is the school bus drivers be allowed to transport the students in question until a solution can be worked out to address the safety concerns and the contractual concerns. Stanford cast the only dissenting vote.
By Michael Howell
Jim Cloud, Chairman of the Stevensville School Board, called a special School Board meeting on Monday, November 20, to suggest some emergency measures to secure personnel files. Cloud said that some concern had been expressed by several Board members about the security of the school's personnel files. He asked the Board to consider sealing the files from access by anyone until those concerns could be resolved. He thought it might take about a week.
"I feel personally that it is prudent that no one be allowed to alter those files until we determine if there is a problem," said Cloud.
He asked Stevensville Teacher Association (STA) president Stacy Hall for her recommendation.
Hall asked if this meant that no one would be allowed to examine their personnel file.
"I'm for changing the locks and allowing no one until we find out if we have a problem," said Cloud.
Superintendent Dennis Kimzey and his secretary Pat Pfau described the safeguards used in allowing access to personnel files. They both expressed confidence in the procedures.
Hall said that the STA recommendation would be not to restrict access by employees to their own personnel files. Hall told the Bitterroot Star that since the last closed session for an employee performance review it has emerged that information may have been placed in an employee's personnel file without their knowledge.
Cloud called for a motion in response to the concerns under discussion but no motion was forthcoming and the meeting was adjourned.
By Michael Howell
The Stevensville School Board has received a letter of complaint signed by all four principals working at the school. In the letter, dated September 21, the principals "with much regret and trepidation" accuse the Board of not following school policy or Montana state law with regard to two agenda items at the regular school board meeting on September 12, 2006. The letter was discussed in general terms at an open board meeting on November 10 where it was agreed, at the request of School Board Chairman Jim Cloud, that the principals consider resolving their concerns one more time outside of a public meeting. The principals agreed to meet with Cloud, Superintendent Dennis Kimzey, and Trustees Cathy Cook and Ed Cummings to try and resolve their differences. Access to the letter under discussion was denied to the press until it could be determined that it was a document available to the public. The Bitterroot Star received a copy of the letter on Monday.
In it the principals essentially complained about the handling of two agenda items. One was "Discussion regarding Kindergarten enrollment procedure" and the second was "Discussion of Administration procedure for Title IX discipline complaint."
In the first instance, the principals claim that instead of discussing the enrollment procedures, "Chairman Jim Cloud began interrogating an administrator and criticizing her performance" with regard to those procedures.
"The discussion was not only out of line, it violated the employee's right of privacy," states the letter.
Concerning the second agenda item, the principals claim that the meeting was illegally closed because the Board Chairman did not properly handle the privacy rights involved.
"Despite the obvious violation of the law," the principals state in their letter, "Chairman Cloud convened the Board in a closed session with seven other trustees, the clerk, the superintendent, the high school principal and vice principal to discuss an issue that was investigated by the high school administration. This issue was not on the agenda, and the administration did not know that it would be asked to discuss confidential information in this illegal closed session of the Board. Chairman Cloud, who had been in communication with one of the parties to the investigation, began to interrogate and criticize the administrators about their handling of the investigation. The individual who was subject to the investigation and the party who initiated the investigation were never notified that the investigation would be discussed at this meeting, nor were the administrators notified that they would be interrogated about the investigation," states the letter.
The principals go on to state that Chairman Cloud's "unhappiness" with how the administration handled it was apparent and that he indicated that he had communicated with the complainants and was seeking redress on their behalf.
"The inappropriateness of this situation should be obvious," they wrote. "The issue was not on the agenda and Chairman Cloud used his position as the presiding officer to illegally close a meeting to chastise administrators based on his limited knowledge of a confidential investigation."
They ask the Board to agree that it does not endorse or support Cloud's actions and for a public apology for the "obvious transgressions under his watch."
Cloud said Monday that the meeting scheduled to address the principals' concerns did in fact occur.
"I explained to them that the Board has the responsibility and the authority to review decisions like this and they don't need to get defensive about it," said Cloud. "I think they made some assumptions, but when it was clarified for them, they were OK with it." He said that the principals were "worried about discipline, but we were just making an inquiry." He said that when the principals learned this they said it was OK and Cloud considers the matters resolved and believes the principals do as well.
By Michael Howell
Ravalli County Commissioners agreed on Monday, November 20, to adopt a new map designating five commissioner districts in the county and sent the map describing the new districts to both District Court judges for final approval. The redistricting was required following the successful ballot initiative proposed by the Ravalli County Local Government Study Commission to increase the number of county commissioners from three to five.
The five new districts were designed by the county's GIS Department to meet state requirements of being essentially equal in population numbers. According to Commissioner Greg Chilcott, the proposed districts are within one percent of each other in population numbers, more than meeting the state's requirements. Each of the new districts includes about 7,200 people.
Because the Local Government Review Study did not include a provision for keeping the current commissioners, all five seats will be up for election. Since the voters rejected a ballot issue to make commissioner elections non-partisan, primary elections have been scheduled for April 3, 2007 with general elections to follow in June. Anyone interested in running for the office must register by January 18. Registration is already open.
Alec Sutherland, head of the Local Government Review Study Commission, said that the study commission actually has the authority to redraw the new districts, but they were willing to accept the county's district line proposals in order not to slow up the process since the legal deadlines call for candidates to file no sooner than 135 days before an election. With a primary scheduled for April 3, that makes Monday, November 20, the deadline for beginning the process of accepting candidates.
By Michael Howell
Stevensville resident Laurie Corbino was arrested last Wednesday, November 15 on felony theft charges in relation to a string of thefts in the Stevensville area. Corbino is charged with stealing many articles from the yards of various residents in the Stevensville area. Stevensville Police Chief James Marble said that, although no single item stolen was valued over $1,000, the bottom limit for triggering felony charges, the cumulative result of the "common scheme" is estimated to be well over $1,000.
In the past month the police department received about 13 reports of various items being stolen from yards around town. Information gleaned from the reports eventually led to suspicion of Corbino. In the process of searching for the suspect she was found at a local grocery store and subsequently arrested for shoplifting at the store. A search warrant was then obtained and executed. Marble said that a great number of reported stolen items were discovered in the search.
Because many of the items discovered were not reported stolen, Marble is asking community members to check their premises for missing items that may have been stolen. Those items may be reclaimed by contacting the Police Department and identifying the item; if it is among the stolen items it will be returned.
By Michael Howell
Three North Valley bar owners decided to challenge each other to raise food and monetary donations for the local food bank, Pantry Partners. The loser, the bar that raised the least donations, would have to take a "Walk of Shame" in front of the bar that raised the most donations wearing goggles, flippers, a snorkel and an inner tube (look for someone so attired outside the High Country Bar, winner of the contest). As a result, the local food bank received 4,780 pounds of food and $1,000. The money will be used to buy over 2,000 pounds of frozen turkeys to be given away to needy families over the holiday season.
Owners of Jukebox Saturday Night in Florence, and the Full Moon Saloon and High Country Bars in Stevensville, started the competition on September 18. The resulting truckloads of food were weighed on the scales at Montana Bob's Antiques and then delivered, with lots of volunteer help to unload, to the Pantry Partners food bank.
By Michael Howell
The Bitterroot Valley Food Cooperative has taken its first big step towards realizing its goal of providing fresh, organic, and, whenever possible, locally produced foods and other goods to valley consumers.
According to Alice Mariana, registered agent of the new co-op, a steering committee has helped form the articles of incorporation of the new entity and established some goals and objectives, but the co-op, which is currently seeking membership pledges, will wait on members to elect a true Board of Directors. That elected Board will then set policy and hire a general manager who will be responsible for managing operations and hiring staff.
The new co-op's aims are far reaching. Its objectives include increasing markets for local agriculture products that benefit local producers; providing fresh, healthy food that is easy for customers to access; increasing local food production, processing and consumption; supplying the basic needs of members, including nutritional education and detailed labeling, at the lowest commercially reasonable prices; promoting agriculture methods that are sustainable and improve soil health and ecosystem biodiversity, wildlife habitat and conservation of natural resources; reducing food transportation distances and dependence on fossil fuels; improving regional food security; and encouraging a sense of community, self-sufficiency, and connection to place.
Mariana said that the Co-op's immediate goals include developing a retail store of approximately 4,000 to 5,000 square feet in the Hamilton area. They hope to establish an attractive, well stocked store offering locally produced food when possible, but some other foods from "safe and reliable sources" when local sources are not available. She said that the Co-op should support the planning efforts of local producers by contracting for the sale of their products. She said that this would help expand the variety of agricultural and food products produced in the county.
Final plans of the Co-op await the formation of a Board of Directors and the adoption of by-laws. But that awaits formal membership. Without a board of directors the Co-op cannot solicit funds. Instead, it is asking prospective members to sign promissory notes to pay a lifetime membership fee of $200 once the Board is established and by-laws are adopted.
Members will own a full share of the Co-op, will benefit from membership specials, and may participate directly in management of the Co-op. Each member has a single vote and decisions will be made by the majority. Besides offering information on the source and nutritional value of the food being offered, plans call for cooking classes and other educational opportunities, including the chance to meet with local farmers and visit their farms.
The Co-op is also offering preferred stock in the company at $500 per share. Each share is entitled to dividends when available. Common membership stock is being offered at $200 per share. No shareholder may own more or less than one share of common stock and gets one vote. Preferred stock owners do not get a vote.
Mariana said that a lot of people have shown an interest in the concept of a co-op. She said they hope to build upon that enthusiasm. Anyone interested in the Co-op may contact Julie Foster at 375-9416 or Sustainable Living Systems at 642-3601.
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