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Polson

Flathead Lake, with the city of Polson in the foreground.

In quick succession, Polson is losing its city manager, city attorney and city engineer.

The staffing shake-up came amid sharp criticism of City Manager Mark Shrives, who has held that post since 2013. Under his most recent two-year contract, which expired Oct. 29, he drew an annual salary of $87,705.

A performance evaluation in August credited Shrives with several accomplishments in administration, infrastructure, policing and recreation, and described him as “an important link in the chain between the [City] Commission and the citizens and the staff.”

But last Monday, when Mayor Paul Briney and five of Polson’s six city commissioners debated a new two-year contract for Shrives, they heard and raised concerns about his performance.

Commissioner Stephen Turner brought these issues up early in the meeting, saying he’d found a general desire to not renew Shrives’s contract. “Everybody that I have talked to that comes into the city never leaves with a positive attitude, and sometimes it just takes change to create change,” he said. “I just don't feel that overall the city is being … represented in a fair and welcoming way.”

Commissioner Bob Martin described a similar mood. “I received a lot of calls, and they're mostly negative, concerning Mark's performance, and they're not calls based on incompetence or getting things done, they're more concerned with his attitude towards people trying to do business with the city, [or] internal city staff.”

Mark Johnston, a Polson swim coach who’s been active in the town’s government, said that “because of the way that Mark has treated me, I've dropped back from any involvement in city organizations whatsoever.”

Shrives, however, voiced surprise at these allegations, saying he hadn’t previously been aware of them. “I'm a little surprised that all of a sudden now I'm the worst city manager ever,” he told those gathered. “In a way, I feel like there was a little bit of a hit job tonight. If there was concerns why didn't you come tell me, talk to me, say you weren't comfortable?”

Mayor Briney said he’d heard concerns and disagreed with Shrives as well. But overall, “in my short term here I’ve been fairly happy” with his work. Commissioner Jan Howlett also came to Shrives’s defense, telling those gathered that in a city manager form of government, “you hire one person, they have to take the flak, they have to figure out how to keep all the employees happy, as best they can … and that's not easy.”

Their disagreements came to a head when Shrives’s two-year contract came up for a vote. It would have extended his employment with the city through October 2020, paying him about $93,000 the first year and $95,000 the second year.

It failed to pass when the mayor and commissioners deadlocked, with Stephen Turner, Ian Donovan and Bob Martin voting no, and Briney, Jan Howlett and Graydon Moll voting yes. Commissioner Lou Marchello was absent.

Every commissioner but Turner did vote to approve a one-year contract for Shrives. But that wasn’t enough for the city manager. “He didn’t agree to that,” Mayor Briney told the Missoulian, saying that Shrives was “upset at what was said” at the meeting.

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His last contract expired Oct. 29. “You can call it a resignation or a failure to sign the contract,” Briney said.

City Attorney Rich Gebhardt is also leaving, but declined to comment. City Engineer Shari Johnson said she gave the city 30 days’ notice this past Friday, but only said she was “resigning to protect her professional and personal integrity.”

“I think it would be foolish to think they weren’t related,” Briney said of the departures, saying that the three worked closely together but giving no explanations that were more concrete.

Running this town of nearly 5,000 on the south end of Flathead Lake has long posed challenges. Polson voters adopted a city manager form of government in 2006, and its leaders grappled with the role for several years afterwards, going through five full-time or interim city managers before hiring Shrives five years ago.

Howlett stands by her support of the former manager. “He was pretty smart, he was a good city manager. It’s just pretty sad that personality gets in the way of people’s performance.”

Martin said that while “Mark’s a very capable guy, he’s got a lot of rough edges,” but declined to elaborate on what those were. He said his vote “was a hard decision for me. I was kind of torn, but I felt it was best for the city.”

Martin expects the search for a new manager to take four to eight months. Briney said that the city commission will take up the matter of an interim manager this upcoming Monday.

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