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Helena commission moves forward with city restructuring, including change in Civic Center oversight

Posted at 11:35 PM, Aug 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-13 01:35:26-04

HELENA — The Helena City Commission has taken the next step toward officially reorganizing city departments – including shifting responsibility for the Helena Civic Center.

Commissioners gave initial approval Monday to an ordinance finalizing the restructuring plan, which shifts several city services to new departments. The most controversial part of the plan has been moving the Civic Center from the Community Facilities Department to the newly renamed Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department.

Members of the Civic Center Advisory Board, a citizen board that helps support the facility, have been highly critical of the move. On Monday, several members were at the commission meeting to oppose the ordinance.

Judy Kline, the board’s president, said she doesn’t believe Helena Parks and Recreation is the right location for the Civic Center. She questioned whether the department had enough experience in things like planning events.

“The Civic Center division has been put under Parks and Recreation 20 years ago; it did not work,” she said. “It wasn’t a good fit then, and it’s not a good fit now. We’re appointed as an advisory board, and our advice is, really, don’t do this.”

Kline said, after 20 years overseeing the Civic Center, the Community Facilities Department staff has important knowledge about the facility’s operations. She said she was concerned Parks and Recreation staff won’t be able to provide the same kind of support.

“We are concerned about, has anybody really thought about these things, or is this an unintended consequence of just hastily moving a division like the Civic Center like a piece on a chessboard,” she said.

But Helena city manager Ana Cortez said putting the Civic Center under Parks and Recreation would give the facility more attention. She said there is not currently a director for the Community Facilities Department, so the Civic Center’s manager, Byron Dike, had been reporting directly to her.

“Now the Civic Center staff, the manager, is part of a group of creative individuals who operate a number of programs – it’s parks, it’s recreation, it’s open lands, it’s arts, it’s all of that – versus being in a vacuum under the city manager’s office,” she said.

Cortez said the change in responsibility wouldn’t mean any operational differences for the public or the Civic Center’s clients. She said staff will continue to do what is needed for the facility, just as before.

“The idea that somehow an employee is not going to do his job because there’s been a change in who the supervisor is, is ludicrous,” she said. “We are here to do our work regardless of which department we happen to be placed in.”

Cortez also responded to opponents’ concerns that the city was moving toward privatizing the Civic Center. She said leaders will be looking for proposals on how the facility can best be used, but that they do not yet have any private partner seeking to run the Civic Center.

“At this point, I think it is extremely premature to make any assumptions about any type of privatization,” she said.

Commissioner Ed Noonan said during Monday’s meeting that the city was committed to the Civic Center and would not be abandoning it. He said he saw the reorganization as a new opportunity.

“We are going to move the Civic Center into Parks – one of our most vital departments, that works all the time with engaging people, responding to their needs, finding better ways to serve them,” he said.

Commissioner Andres Haladay said he was disappointed by what he called misinformation, hyperbole and insults in correspondence the city received from opponents of the Civic Center move.

“That doesn’t change my continued support for the success of the Civic Center as a valuable art tool in Helena,” he said. “I’ll continue to support that, even if I found the way that individuals conducted themselves to be entirely distasteful.”

The city commission is set to hold a public hearing on the restructuring plan on Aug. 26. After that, commissioners will take a final vote on the ordinance.

Much of the restructuring plan has already taken place. Cortez said Dike is already reporting to Helena Parks and Recreation director Kristi Ponozzo. That has drawn criticism from opponents of the change, who said the city was not following proper procedure and should have made the changes only after the commission officially changed city code.

Cortez said the city manager has authority to determine who an employee reports to, even without a change in code, but that she wanted to see the ordinance go forward to make sure all the proper steps were taken.