It's time for the city of Missoula to renew its membership in a little-known international council that promotes sustainability at the local level.

Or is it?

Sparks flew, councilors were charged with treason, and police officers were hailed Wednesday afternoon when the topic of paying annual dues of $1,200 to the council known as ICLEI came up before the city's administration and finance committee.

Amid the hubbub, the panel voted 5-3 to recommend the City Council approve the payment at its weekly meeting Monday night, where more fireworks can be expected.

Missoula adopted a resolution in 1996 to join ICLEI, which according to its website was founded in 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. It now goes by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability.

The organization is "incredibly important" to Missoula's mayor-appointed greenhouse gas and conservation task force, said Amy Cilimburg of Montana Audubon, who co-chairs the task force.

"ICLEI is basically designed to provide support so we can reduce our fossilized energy use, become more sustainable and do it in a way that will save the community money," Cilimburg said.

It saves time as well, added Ross Keogh, her co-chair on the task force.

"One of the key tools we do in this work is we use ICLEI's carbon calculator," which works out the total cost of everyday activities by tons of carbon used, Keogh said.

"It provides us with a variety of baselines and helps us minimize the amount of time staff needs to go through and find those numbers."

Opponents came from Missoula, Ravalli County and one as far away as Silver Star in Madison County to ask the city to cancel its support of ICLEI.

They called it a "tentacle" of the divisive Agenda 21, a plan of action to combat human effects on the environment that was developed by the United Nations in 1992.

ICLEI is a nongovernmental organization "circumventing Congress under the cover of environmental concern," according to Niki Sardot, president of the Ravalli County Farm Bureau, who said she was speaking on behalf of the Montana Farm Bureau's 17,700 ranchers and members.

"ICLEI gives our mayor the ‘cool mayor' award. In exchange, the Bill of Rights, Montana state and U.S. constitutions are abandoned," Sardot said. "You are selling us out."

"The guidelines constitute an attack on the basic principles of liberty, such as private property rights and local autonomy," said Gloria Roark of Missoula.

"This is harmful, I believe, for our economic survival," said Jeannette Zentgraf of Lolo, who entreated the council members on the committee to "read everything you can obtain on ICLEI before you continue this kind of, I guess you'd call it, training."

More strident was Kandi Matthews-Jenkins of Missoula, a past mayoral and state legislative candidate. She said ICLEI fulfills "almost 95 percent of communist goals."

"I would say that you paying these dues to ICLEI, a communist-conceived agenda, would be treasonable action by this governmental body," Matthews-Jenkins said.

Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard put the ICLEI membership issue on the administration and finance committee agenda. Hellegaard said she'd heard from several members of the community who "are concerned about the city paying membership to this and the policies and initiatives that are behind it."

Things started edging out of control when committee chairwoman Stacy Rye closed public comment after warning several testifiers to keep their comments within a three-minute time limit.

Zentgraf and another woman both approached the podium in an attempt to add more arguments. Rye told both they were out of order, and gave councilman Bob Jaffe the floor.

"I just had a question for Lyn to confirm that this is why you pulled it off the (Monday council agenda), for your constituency from Ravalli County to come and gripe about the United Nations?" Jaffe said.

Amid protests from the audience, and Rye's continued call for order, Matthews-Jenkins jumped to her feet and shouted, "I find (this) offensive. The order is that the citizens speak."

Rye requested security, then warned, "If people can't be in order we're going to take a recess or we'll adjourn."

Things quieted down, and Hellegaard responded to Jaffe's jibe.

It wasn't her place, she said, to prohibit people from outside the city from speaking their minds, since they're affected by the council's decision "even though we choose to believe they're not."

"For this body to be interested in limiting the public comment I find egregious," Hellegaard said. "The more information we have the better decisions that we can make. So if you have a problem getting more information than maybe you want to hear, that's a personal problem, Bob."

After criticizing Rye for her handling of the public comments, Councilor Dick Haines said, "This (vote) is something that I see as a threat to my personal liberty, my personal freedom and my private property rights. I realize that doesn't mean a damn thing to you, but it sure does to me, and it does for these people here."

Rye retorted that she wasn't out of line for keeping comments to three minutes, the normal time limit, nor for shutting down people who speak out of place.

"I don't know in what parallel universe people aren't out of order when they start shouting from the audience," agreed councilman Jason Wiener, one of the five who voted to recommend paying the $1,200 dues to ICLEI.

Wiener said input is welcome, "but some information is more credible than other information."

"I find credible scientific research that's been done that says our climate is changing, that the causes are in the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, there will be consequences, and we need to prepare for them."

Nine of 10 constituents who contact him about climate change wonder why the council isn't doing more about it, Wiener said. "I'd like to get on with doing something."

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