Documents show Helena city manager, commission sparred over roles, responsibilities

Rachel Harlow-Schalk
Posted at 6:55 PM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 20:55:02-04

HELENA — A new set of publicly released documents is giving us a clearer picture of the contentious discussions that led up to the resignation of Helena’s former city manager – centering on the roles and responsibilities of the manager and city commission.

Earlier this month, MTN shared some of the final emails between City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk and Helena city commissioners, released through a public information request. However, the city withheld 21 messages and attachments, citing individual privacy concerns.

Now, though, they’ve released those documents, saying the situation has changed. On Tuesday, the Helena City Attorney’s Office sent a letter, stating that “the former City Manager effectively waived her right to privacy through a release to the media.”

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Harlow-Schalk sent a statement to the Helena Independent Record earlier this week, saying she had argued with commissioners over her authority and their involvement in personnel matters.

The 78 pages of newly released documents give more details about Harlow-Schalk’s claims and how the city responded.

On Jan. 25, Harlow-Schalk sent a letter to commissioners, outlining several concerns.

“The city is not operating within the contract I signed,” she said.

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In the letter, she claimed a section of city code – which gives the commission power to set personnel policies – conflicts with the city charter – which gives the city manager authority to supervise all city employees. She had recommended the city commission change that provision during a November administrative meeting, and she said she saw their decision not to make the change as “a vote of no confidence in my leadership.”

Harlow-Schalk also complained about commissioners contacting staff directly instead of going through her, said they had not completed a required one-year performance evaluation for her and claimed she had been personally disparaged by a commissioner.

“If the City is interested in negotiating a new contract, please consider this letter in making a new offer to me,” she concluded. “However, in my experience, it’s not in a city’s best interest to keep a City Manager on staff when they are looking for a new job. If not interested in renewing, I request the City let me go without cause and issue liquidated damages as provided in Section 5. (D) of my contract.”

Under Harlow-Schalk’s contract, she would have been entitled to a year of salary and benefits if the commission terminated her employment without cause.

City commissioners responded to the letter the same day, saying they would treat it as an employment grievance. Mayor Wilmot Collins assigned Commissioners Emily Dean and Melinda Reed to serve as an “ad-hoc committee” to review her complaints. He told MTN Wednesday that their goal remained to work through the issues with Harlow-Schalk.

“That was the goal of the ad-hoc committee: find a solution to the problem, let’s work through it,” he said. “But then it took another turn.”

In response to a request from Dean, Harlow-Schalk provided more details about her allegations on Feb. 1. She said she raised concerns to stand up for her independence as manager, citing an international organization’s code of ethics that calls for city and county managers to “resist any encroachment on professional responsibilities.”

In the document, Harlow-Schalk claimed commissioners were routinely contacting city staff directly, instead of going through her. She acknowledged commissioners had the authority to talk to staff “for the purpose of inquiry or investigation” but argued that should only be for the purposes of developing policy.

Harlow-Schalk identified two examples: one redacted for another individual’s privacy, and one in which she sent an email asking commission members not to “work with staff” after one asked the city’s public information officer a question about an email list that goes to the mayor and commissioners. Former Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin responded to that message, saying that she had been making an inquiry, not working with staff.

Harlow-Schalk said the city commission was supposed to conduct an evaluation of her first 6 months in the job, but it didn’t happen until several months after the 6-month period ended. She said they did hold a one-year appraisal last November, but that they didn’t give her direction, discuss criteria or deliver a full evaluation or rating to her.

Harlow-Schalk also said her claim that a commission member “deliberately engaged in efforts to harm me personally” stemmed from interactions she had with O’Loughlin regarding last year’s working group meetings on the school resource officer program. She said, in meeting with the commissioner, O’Loughlin “shared she was very angry that I would open conversations to those she believed did not belong in the conversation.”

“During the first meeting of the working group (May 19, 2021), Commissioner O’Loughlin shared she had negotiated one-on-one with the social justice team and was disappointed the way it was being approached,” Harlow-Schalk wrote. “After that first meeting, letters from social justice groups were published, and public comments were made to impact public confidence in me.”

The Montana Racial Equity Project and the ACLU of Montana sent an open letter to Harlow-Schalk, saying the way the group was organized meant that not all perspectives were being considered, and vowing to pull out if those who didn't want officers on campus weren't better represented.

On Feb. 15, Dean and Reed issued a lengthy response to Harlow-Schalk’s claims, officially denying her grievance. They responded to each of the allegations she made.

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Commissioners denied they were violating the city charter, saying the city code at issue fit within their authority because it was merely determining policy. They said the code did not interfere with the manager’s duties to handle personnel matters, and that declining to change it was not a signal they lacked confidence in her leadership.

They rejected Harlow-Schalk’s complaint about commissioners directly contacting staff as “untimely,” since the examples she brought up were months-old and involved people no longer on the commission. However, they offered to work with her on developing standards and principles for interactions between city commissioners and employees.

Dean and Reed said, while Harlow-Schalk’s 6-month evaluation was delayed, that didn’t detract significantly from the benefit of it. They said her concerns about the format of the one-year evaluation should have been brought up sooner, and that her conversations with commissioners and human resources staff didn’t show she objected to the process.

They said the manager’s claims against O’Loughlin regarding the SRO discussion were also untimely, since they were raised months after it happened and when O’Loughlin was no longer on the commission. In addition, they said nothing in the employment agreement prevented a commissioner from working with outside organizations, and that Harlow-Schalk hadn’t shown how the social justice groups’ letter had harmed her.

Harlow-Schalk responded in an email later Feb. 15, again saying she would not accept renewal of her current contract. She denied that she had intended her original letter to be a grievance, saying, “The Commission created this narrative.” She said the city’s letter attacked her integrity.

Harlow-Schalk emailed her official request to leave the next day.

The city commission released a statement on Wednesday, saying they were disappointed Harlow-Schalk issued a statement without sharing the city’s response. They again defended their handling of the issues and urged the public to review Dean and Reed’s letter.

“I sincerely respect Ms. Harlow-Schalk; I know she did some good work here for this city and the people of Helena,” Collins told MTN Wednesday. “But our response is accurate, and I stand by it.”

Rachel Harlow-Schalk declined to comment for this story.