Emails show tension surrounding Helena city manager before departure

Rachel Harlow-Schalk
Posted at 4:52 PM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 20:53:14-05

HELENA — It’s been almost a month since Helena’s city manager resigned her position. Now, newly released documents are painting a picture of her last days on the job.

After Rachel Harlow-Schalk’s departure as city manager on Feb. 18, MTN made a public information request for her emails to and from Helena City Commission members during the month of February. This week, the city released several hundred pages of documents. They withheld 21 messages and attachments, citing individual privacy concerns.

While the messages made public are not complete, they do paint a picture of what Harlow-Schalk was concerned with during her final three weeks in the position.

Harlow-Schalk sent an email to Mayor Wilmot Collins and the four city commissioners on Feb. 16, asking for a separation.

“Based on recent exchanges with the City Commission, I believe I am no longer the right person to serve as City Manager for Helena,” she said.

Harlow-Schalk Emails

She attached a letter, asking for a mediated exit to end her employment “in the most professional and peaceful manner possible as soon as possible.”

Again, the released emails from Feb. 1 through Feb. 16 are not complete, but they show Harlow-Schalk’s discussions with commissioners on issues ranging from zoning and land use to marijuana policy to school resource officers. She often fielded questions about policies for public input and public notice of city actions.

One recurring theme in the emails was Harlow-Schalk expressing frustration with having to deal with “structural issues” that she said preceded her tenure with the city.

In an email to Collins and Commissioner Eric Feaver on Feb. 1, Harlow-Schalk praised city staff but said many systems were outdated and they suffered from employee turnover and a loss of institutional knowledge. She said structural problems had been going on for at least seven years.

“Right now, I have to address the biggest issues I can as quickly as possible because there are so many foundational issues,” she added.

She echoed that in a Feb. 4 message to Feaver, saying she had pushed back against “new asks” because she was busy dealing with issues that began before she joined the city in 2020.

“[F]rankly, no one knew how bad it was and ultimately, the Commission does not seem to hear me when I say: the entire foundation is broken,” she said.

Harlow-Schalk Emails

MTN reached out to Harlow-Schalk, who declined to comment for this story.

Harlow-Schalk spent less than a year and a half with the city. She was selected as city manager in August 2020 and officially started work in October 2020. Previously, she had worked as the state of Colorado’s deputy director of local government.

After her departure, the mayor and commissioners released a statement praising Harlow-Schalk for her “dedication to the City and diligent work to achieve the priorities of the community,” and for her work on community engagement, fiscal stability and economic development.

This is the latest in a series of changes in Helena’s top administrative post. There have been two permanent city managers and several interim and acting city managers since Ron Alles stepped down in 2018. Ana Cortez served as city manager from January 2019 to February 2020. She left after reaching a separation agreement with the city.

Former city attorney Thomas Jodoin is serving as the short-term interim city manager, through the end of April. The city commission is expected to choose a candidate to be long-term interim manager at a special meeting Tuesday evening.