HELENA — In an unexpected move Monday night, the Helena City Commission announced it will consider dissolving the advisory board for the Helena Civic Center.
During a discussion about the future of advisory boards in the city, Commissioner Andres Haladay said he would recommend asking City Manager Ana Cortez to put together a resolution proposing the board’s dissolution.
The issue had not appeared on the board’s agenda for the Monday meeting, so Cortez said commissioners were not allowed to take a formal vote. However, she said they could give her direction to bring it forward at a future meeting.
The city commission has been talking about ways to address what they see as inefficiencies in some of Helena’s advisory boards. The city held a listening session on that question last week, and an online survey is still open.
However, Haladay said his concerns about the Civic Center board went beyond efficiency. He told MTN he felt the board should be eliminated because they had set themselves up to fight with the city, rather than to provide advice.
Earlier this year, a number of board members strongly opposed the city’s plan to shift responsibility for the Civic Center from the Community Facilities Department to the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department. Haladay accused them of spreading misinformation about the move.
“They confused people and stirred up problems in a manner that certainly wasn’t effective in supporting the city of Helena and the Helena Civic Center,” he said.
Haladay also pointed to the minutes from the board’s Sept. 10 meeting, where board president Judy Kline said, if there were no changes on the commission, she feared current board members would not be reappointed when their terms expired in March. Haladay argued that the board was acting as an entity of the city, and that statement amounted to improper advocacy for a certain result in the election earlier this month.
“Crossing the line in terms of what appears to me to be a potential ethics violation in violation of Title 2 of state law – it’s just no longer acceptable,” he said.
Kline admitted Tuesday that she had made that statement, but said she didn’t see it as electioneering. She said it was simply a “heads-up” to her board that the commission might decide to replace members.
“It wasn’t politicking, it was purely a statement of fact,” she said.
The board currently has 15 members, who serve three-year terms. Five of them were set to have their terms expire in March. The commission unanimously reappointed five other members earlier this year.
Kline also denied that the board spread misinformation about the Civic Center’s transfer to Parks, Recreation and Open lands, saying they were simply expressing concerns about what the move would mean for the facility.
“That may have made the commissioners unhappy because it was opposite of what they wanted to do,” she said. “That’s pretty much it.”
Kline said she has served on the board for more than 40 years. In that time, she said they had given important input on things like the Civic Center’s programming and fee structure, and they had held fundraisers to help support the historic building. She said she doesn’t believe the city commission has had a real discussion with the board about their concerns.
“We’re really disappointed that the city commission is seeing this as a solution for what they see as a problem,” she said. “40 years of the Civic Center's success, I think speaks for itself.”
On Monday, Mayor Wilmot Collins said he wasn’t yet sure it was necessary to dissolve the Civic Center board. He argued commissioners can possibly propose changes to the board’s structure and operations that will make it more effective.
“I’m still of the opinion that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “Can we find ways to make the facility functional? I think we could.”
Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin supported bringing forward a resolution to dissolve the board, but left open the possibility of future discussions with board members.
“If there is a willingness to come forward and talk through in a productive way what’s best for the Civic Center moving forward, I’m certainly open to that,” she said. To date, that hasn’t been the case.”
Commissioner Kali Wicks said, regardless of what decision the commissioners make, they are committed to making the Civic Center a success.
Cortez said a resolution on the Civic Center board will likely come before commissioners next month.