GREAT FALLS (AP) — John Mercer, who has been a vocal critic of Board of Regents policies during his nearly two years on the board, led a takeover of its leadership Friday.
On 4-3 votes, the board endorsed a Mercer proposal to end the terms of Chairman Richard Roehm and Vice Chairwoman Lynn Hamilton, two of his strongest opponents, and replaced them.
The board elected Ed Jasmin of Bigfork as chairman and student regent Christian Hur of Missoula, Mercer's most steadfast ally on the board, as vice chairman.
Roehm, who left the unfinished meeting almost immediately and returned to Bozeman, likened the maneuver to a coup and said the new Mercer-led majority will bring a dramatic change in the board's style of governing the Montana University System.
Mercer and his followers will engage in more micromanagement of the campuses, Roehm said. "Now it simply appears to be that 'manage' means more hands on. John wants to control things and he is."
The new minority on the board still "feels 'manage' means setting goals and objectives, and relying on the joint management and administration of those we hire to carry it out," he said.
While insisting his comments were not sour grapes, Roehm predicted an increasing politicization of the board.
Mercer, a Polson attorney and a legislator for 16 years, acknowledged that he wanted a change in leadership because "I want us to go in a new direction."
"Consistently, I'm looking for new outlook and change on the Board of Regents," he said after the vote. "A change in leadership is always a good thing to keep things moving along."
Mercer, who was speaker of the House for an unprecedented four terms, wants the board to play a more dominant role in addressing the state's economic woes.
"It's not moving as quickly as I would like to see," he said.
The regents should "take a leadership responsibility in Montana and engage other Montana leaders to determine what Montana's problems are and seek solutions, with the full faith and credit of the University System," he said.
Mercer rejected the notion of a coup, saying the board is merely "evolving in its membership and in its thinking."
Mercer's move came after he has spent the past two years on the board challenging nearly every aspect of how the regents operate and questioning decisions of campus leaders more extensively than any previous board member.
He often irritated or exasperated other regents, leading to predictably contentious meetings. He was a critic of former Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts, who retired in January after 6 1/2 years in the job.
But, for much of his time on the board, Mercer found himself in a two-person minority with Hur. But on Friday, Jasmin and the newest regent, Lila Taylor of Busby, sided with Mercer and Hur on the key votes.
The foursome supported the move to force a new election of chairman and vice chairman by cutting in half the two-year terms of Roehm and Hamilton. They and Mark Semmens, regent from Great Falls, opposed the move.
Hur recommended Jasmin for chairman; Semmens nominated Roehm. The four votes of Mercer, Hur, Taylor and Jasmin elected Jasmin.
Both Hamilton and Roehm refused to be considered for vice chairman, leaving the post to Hur.
Mercer said the move to retain Hamilton in the No. 2 spot was an effort to unify the board. "It wasn't an effort to just push them aside and put someone else in there."
Jasmin, whose seven-year term ends in February, and Hamilton refused to comment on the board shakeup. So did acting Commissioner Carrol Krause.
Roehm said he doubts that he will resign but didn't rule out that possibility.
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