Martin McGrew lost an appeal in Flathead County District Court to remain on the Whitefish City Council a week after the council voted to remove him because of residency concerns.
He requested an annexation petition from the city after the court’s ruling.
Two weeks ago, a city employee discovered that the lot on which McGrew’s house sits was never annexed by the city, calling into question his eligibility for a city position. By state law, a candidate must live within the district for at least 60 days prior to an election.
In light of the McGrew situation, City Attorney John Phelps believes the city should think about addressing both its scattered “island” county lots and its process of checking candidates’ residency backgrounds before elections.
In an interview before the ruling, McGrew said his complaint was designed to both clarify his residence and “prevent them from removing me from the council based on the fact that I am really a Whitefish resident.” In his argument, he pointed that he votes on city issues; uses city water; served on the Whitefish City-County Planning Board as a city appointee; and has a city address at 545 Ramsey Ave. Furthermore, he wondered why nobody pointed this out earlier, specifically before the city council election.
“My fundamental point on this is that I had no reason to believe that I was anything other than a city resident,” McGrew said. “Why wasn’t this discovered when I was on the city-county planning board?”
The controversy stemmed from a series of events that resulted in McGrew’s single lot falling into both the county and city jurisdictions. McGrew said he originally purchased a lot in 1996 with reason to believe it was city land, as it sits in the middle of city lots. Then he bought an adjacent parcel of northern land in 1998 and had a boundary line adjustment done to convert the two separate lots into one single lot.
It turns out, however, that a portion of the original lot is one of a handful of isolated county areas located within city limits. Those “island” lots were never 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.”
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 suggested the Feb. 19 deadline because it’s the date of a council hearing on the controversial critical areas ordinance, the first of several major issues the city will look at in the next several months. Others include a large downtown improvement project and an emergency services center. Following a string of recent controversies in Whitefish city politics, Phelps thinks it’s best for the city to get everything figured out up front before entering this crucial period.
“If we were a little town that rarely has controversy then these issues would seem less urgent,” Phelps said.
McGrew acknowledges that he has two separate property tax records – one for the county and one for the city. But he said he wasn’t previously aware of this because he never looks at his tax bill. His mortgage company takes care of it, he said. McGrew, who is a loan officer for American Homestead Mortgage, points out that a lot of people don’t look at their property tax bills because their mortgage companies handle that.
Turner Askew, who tied McGrew in the November election but was not chosen by the council in a tiebreaking vote, will most likely replace McGrew. Askew originally was declared the winner in November only to see a recount call the election a tie. The council then voted in favor of McGrew in a tiebreaking decision.
McGrew said he never intended to mislead anybody.
“Why would I want to try to deceive the public and pay money on a campaign for a job that doesn’t pay me anything, other than the fact that I just passionately enjoy the privilege, the opportunity to serve my community?” McGrew said.
Phelps said the McGrew situation shows that the city should study candidates’ residential qualifications more closely before elections. He also said he is putting together a map of the scattered island lots for the council. The McGrew ordeal comes less than two months after the residency of John Muhlfeld, another councilor, was challenged in court. A district judge ruled in Muhlfeld’s favor. But Phelps is not concerned about a trend developing.
“It’s really just an odd coincidence that two of these have come up so close together,” Phelps said. “Martin’s is just a very unusual situation that will probably never repeat itself.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.