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Polson seeks to approve interim city manager

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

Paperwork and legal questions are piling up for Polson two weeks after its city manager stepped down.

Mark Shrives had held that post for five years until Oct. 26, when he refused to sign a new contract amid heated criticism from some city residents and commissioners. He was followed out the door by city attorney Rich Gebhardt, and city engineer Shari Johnson has given 30 days’ notice.

Shortly after Shrives’s departure, Mayor Paul Briney asked Chief of Police Wade Nash to hold things down in the manager’s office, as he had when Shrives left town in the past.

But at the City Commission meeting Wednesday night, the drawbacks of lacking someone in the manager’s chair full-time became clear.

“Time is of the essence as far as getting somebody in place,” Clint Cottle, the city’s fire chief and street department administrator, told the mayor and the four commissioners present.

“Our day-to-day operations in the city, I don’t think have changed a lot, but … there’s also a few things that our charter spells out that is the sole responsibility of the city manager, and those are now stalled out.”

Polson’s city charter, adopted in 2006, tasks the city manager with administering the city’s day-to-day affairs, executing the City Commission’s contracts and written agreements, and hiring and firing city employees unless provided otherwise.

Cottle was keen to see that last function resume. “I have an opening on the Street Department which I thought was going to be filled, [and] it’s not filled. We’re going into wintertime, [but] that position can’t be filled until we have somebody in that [city manager’s] seat.”

Another vacant position the manager must fill is city attorney. In Gebhardt’s absence, the commission struck the matter of severance pay for Shrives from the agenda, citing the need for legal review.

The situation has weighed on Nash. “Two weeks ago, city staff showed up every day they did their job, and then the whirlwind started.” While he said he was deeply grateful to Polson’s employees, he lamented “how much confusion this has caused.”

Nash said he’d been congratulated by several community members for taking on the city manager’s role. But the charter says the city manager must be appointed by the commission.

“Until that process happens, we’re still going to be here without any authority whatsoever as city employees and it’s challenging, when you start thinking about everyday functions and how many documents that come through that need to be signed, contracts, legal opinions. … I don’t want to sign something that gets me in trouble because I had no authority to do that. ”

Briney acknowledged that, when he’d made his agreement with Nash, “I used what little authority I had — which wasn’t any, because I read the charter — to put you in that position, and I knew we were skating a thin line there, but we needed somebody there to take those calls.”

Several guests at Wednesday night’s meeting called for Nash to be named interim manager. But Briney said he wanted to gather public input before making a decision, and the officials decided to provide 48 hours’ notice before moving forward with an official vote. Montana's open meeting laws do not specify a time frame for public notice, but the attorney general has recommended that county commissions provide 48 hours.

Wade's appointment will come up for a vote in a special meeting set for 5 p.m. on Tuesday. In the absence of an official vote, each of the commissioners present voiced their full support for Nash to continue his actions. “As long as I have your guys’ support, I’m comfortable with that,” he said.

While the group aims to appoint Nash soon, he’ll be out on a family hunting trip all of this week. In the meantime, Mayor Briney said that “we have a clerk who’s very capable. … I make it a point to go down daily and check and sign any documents and checks that are taken care of.”

Briney said that, if appointed as interim city manager, Nash will continue to perform his duties as police chief. The search for a new full-time city manager will likely take several months.

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