The Whitefish City Council voted to remove Martin McGrew from his council position after City Attorney John Phelps recommended the action based on recent findings suggesting McGrew isn’t a legal city resident.
McGrew plans to sue.
Turner Askew, who tied McGrew in city elections but wasn’t selected by the council in a tiebreaking vote, would be expected to take over the position, but at the moment it is unclear what will happen.
“I think they have a problem and they have to solve it,” Askew said after the decision. “And truly there’s nothing I can do to solve it.”
The 3-1 decision – John Muhlfeld was absent and McGrew abstained from voting since it involved his own removal – comes six days after a city employee noticed that the lot where McGrew lives has never been annexed by the city for unclear reasons. McGrew’s lot used to be two separate lots: The northern one was annexed by the city, according to records, but the southern one that holds his house was not. It is one of a handful of lots located within the city that has never been annexed.
Phelps said by state law if McGrew isn’t a legal city resident – or more precisely, wasn’t a resident for 60 days prior to the city council election – he is not eligible to sit on the council. But McGrew said he pays city taxes, has voted in city elections for years and has never had reason to believe he isn’t a city resident.
McGrew’s attorney, Frank Sweeney, suggested the discrepancy is a clerical error and recommended that the city examine and correct the error. In any case, he told the council he believes it would be better for the city to allow McGrew to continue in his elected role until councilors had more time review the evidence. But Phelps said that by allowing McGrew to sit on the council, the city would be opening itself up to a host of other lawsuits. Based on recent turmoil in Whitefish city politics, Phelps said, that is not what the city needs right now.
“We live in a world of controversy,” Phelps said of Whitefish’s current political situation.
McGrew will not be removed until Feb. 19, the next council meeting, giving him time to explore his legal options. As the meeting wore on and it became evident what the council would decide, McGrew made it clear what his intentions would be.
“By approving this, you’re going to have a lawsuit on your hands,” McGrew told fellow councilors.
Sweeney said his client has a strong argument in court based on city tax records and other evidence. Sweeney said the decision was, for the most part, expected, though he reiterated after the meeting that the city could have avoided the lawsuit.
“I’m not surprised by (the decision),” Sweeney said. “But at the same time, the council had other options. Now Martin McGrew has no other option than to pursue injunctive action in the courts. It’s the least attractive option.”
Back in 1987, Phelps said, the council looked to annex 37 “island” lots scattered throughout the city. For whatever reason, the councilors chose to annex only 23 of those lots and left out the remaining 14, including what is today McGrew’s. In 1997, the owner of the northern part gave his land over to the city but the southern one remained un-annexed. Phelps is not sure why the “unusual situation” transpired the way it did.
This is the second time in the past two months a Whitefish city councilor’s residency has been called into question. On Jan. 4, a district judge ruled that Muhlfeld was a lawful city resident and could sit on the council.
Also at the meeting, the council voted to table discussion until a later date on a proposed parking garage and street improvement project in downtown Whitefish.
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