The attorney for Martin McGrew filed a complaint in Flathead County District Court Thursday against the city of Whitefish three days after the city council voted to remove him from his councilor position because of residency concerns.
The complaint, McGrew said in an interview, was filed to clarify his residency status and to “prevent (the city) from removing me from the council based on the fact that I am really a Whitefish resident.” It came quickly because McGrew’s tenure is set to end at 5 p.m. on Feb. 19, which is the next city council meeting. A judge reviewed the complaint today.
McGrew said he votes in Whitefish city elections; served on the city-county planning board as a city appointee including a stint as its president; uses city water and has a city address. He acknowledges that he has two property tax records – one for the city and one for the county. But he said he was not previously aware of that discrepancy because his mortgage company handles the tax bills and he doesn’t see them.
“My fundamental point on this is that I had no reason to believe that I was anything other than a city resident,” McGrew said.
McGrew purchased the lot where his house sits in 1996. In 1998 he bought an adjacent piece of land to the north. He then had a boundary line adjustment done to create one single lot instead of two separate ones. A portion of the original lot, however, was never annexed by the city and is considered county land. That portion holds his house and is one of a handful of “island” lots that have never been annexed by the city.
“It is not two pieces of dirt,” McGrew said. “It is one lot of record, a portion of which is in the county. Because that portion is where the house sits, they’re defining that as my residence. It is one little piece of county in a sea of city.”
Monica Eisenzimer of the Flathead County Election Department said her office receives annexation reports from the city and if a candidate’s address is within the city, then the candidate is eligible for an elected city position. McGrew’s 545 Ramsey Ave. address is a city address.
“His address as far as we were told is in the city,” she said. “We don’t know where on people’s properties their house sits.”
At the Feb. 4 meeting, City Attorney John Phelps recommended the council remove McGrew to avoid future lawsuits against the city. If a resident were to challenge and overturn a council decision on the grounds that one of the councilors was illegally elected, then the floodgates would open for an array of other legal challenges, Phelps said. Phelps hopes the court addresses this issue as quick as possible, preferably before the Feb. 19 meeting.
“Martin’s is just a very unusual situation that will probably never repeat itself,” Phelps said today.
McGrew is comfortable handing his fate over to the court.
“My major concern is the best interest of the city,” he said. “If it turns out that a district court decides that technically I’m a county resident, then so be it. We’ll let the court determine.”
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