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Tooley explains council's letters

Tooley explains council's letters

During the yearlong dispute between Billings City Administrator Kristoff Bauer and suspended Police Chief Ron Tussing, the City Council has released two public statements about the matter that has sparked discussion across the city.

Both statements affirm the council's hands-off position, referring to the City Charter and the chain of command within City Hall as the proper vehicle for resolving the dispute.

While their content is similar, the two letters took different paths through the policy process before they were released.

The first letter is undated and includes 12 signatures from a council of 11 members. The one-page letter carries the signature of Doris Poppler, who died in December after resigning from the council in late October. It also includes the signature of Poppler's appointed Ward 4 replacement, Ed Ulledalen, who joined the council in late November.

No one seems to recall exactly when the position paper was released to the public, but a link at the city's Web site refers to it as "the Feb. 24, 2005, statement." By that date, Councilwoman Jan Iverson, whose signature is on the letter, had resigned and been replaced by Chris "Shoots" Veis, whose signature is not attached to the document.

The second letter, dated March 7, isn't signed by any council members. It is addressed to "The People of Billings" from the "Billings Mayor and City Council." It was released following a closed door meeting of the council that may have been conducted in violation of the state's Open Meetings law.

At least one council member raised concerns after the meeting, disputing whether the public statement was released with the full approval of the council.

In an e-mail sent to Mayor Chuck Tooley from Councilman Dave Brown, Brown said "there was no letter signed by anyone agreeing to anything." Brown has been a vocal critic in recent weeks of the council's handling of the Bauer-Tussing dispute, and at a public meeting last month he led an unsuccessful effort to have Bauer fired on the spot.

Tooley said in an interview this week that he is baffled by Brown's criticism of the most recent public statement issued by him and the council. Tooley defended the two letters as an effort by the city's elected officials to assure the public that they are involved in trying to resolve the dispute.

Statement undated

Here's how Tooley explained the process of the council's two public statements:

Tooley said he was asked sometime last year, most likely before Poppler resigned from the council on Oct. 31, to write a public statement on the dispute.

"There were several people who were concerned about what was going on with the chief and the city administrator," Tooley said. "I felt we needed to have some kind of statement. They asked me to draft it and I did. And they all signed it."

Tooley said he wrote the letter to be released to the public and a nearly identical letter to city department heads. He placed the letters in City Hall to be signed by members of the council, he said, but at some point the letters were shelved.

"There were some folks on the council who didn't feel it would be an appropriate time to release these," he said. "They just wanted to hold off until everybody felt the same way."

Tooley said the citywide election in November for a public safety mill levy was not the main reason behind the decision to table the letters.

"I don't think that was the key issue," he said. "I think the key issue was that some of the council members hoped that there would be some rapprochement between the chief and the city administrator and didn't want to do something that could be seen as working against that," he said. "So I think that's why we didn't want to release it right away, until everybody felt that it was the right time."

According to a copy of the letter given to city department heads, the Police Department received the council's policy statement on Dec. 13. Tooley said he cannot recall when the letter to the public was released.

"I don't know when this one went out, but very likely it was sometime around the same day" as the similar letter to department heads, he said. "So I don't know when this one was released."

Letter No. 2

There is no doubt about when the second letter was released, and its creation apparently took hours, not months.

The city council met for a regularly scheduled work session on March 7, announcing before the meeting that the council would exclude the public from a portion of the meeting to discuss personnel issues.

Tooley said he thought the council might want to make a public statement after the meeting, so he drafted a letter and brought copies to pass out to the council members. The council met behind closed doors for about two hours, and immediately after ending the meeting read the letter to a few department heads and a reporter who waited for the meeting to end.

Under state law, a government policy body can hold closed-door meetings under only two circumstances; to discuss legal strategy or matters that involve an individual's privacy. The Montana Constitution guarantees the public the right to be involved in all steps of government policy decisions.

Tooley initially agreed that the council may have violated that principle when he was first asked about the council's closed-door discussion regarding the letter. Later, after consulting with City Attorney Brent Brooks, Tooley said he believes the council didn't step out of bounds.

Brooks "said that if in fact there's a good chance that personnel issues, confidential personnel issues, might come up during the course of discussing other business, like developing a press release or approving a letter or whatever, it might be best for the safety of our position to protect the right to privacy," Tooley said.

It would be cumbersome, Tooley said, for the council to hold a meeting while repeatedly opening it or closing it depending on the topic of discussion. And the city attorney supports the council's decision to hold that kind of discussion out of the public's reach, he said.

"As a matter of fact, he says it is OK to do that," Tooley said.

Brooks was among the city department heads who waited outside during the closed session of the council meeting. He did not return a telephone message seeking comment about his advice to the mayor.

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