Whitefish City Attorney Announces Retirement

By Beacon Staff

Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps has announced his retirement, to become effective in July of 2010.

Citing “all of the good reasons that everybody would like to retire,” Phelps said after 32 years of practicing law he wants to spend more time with his family, including his granddaughter. He also looks forward to hiking, camping, traveling and helping out with the nonprofit organizations with which he’s involved. Phelps owns a ranch with his wife.

By the time his retirement takes effect, he will have been Whitefish’s city attorney for 15 years. Phelps first notified Mayor Mike Jenson of his decision in July and then gave a letter to city council for Monday night’s meeting. He said he made his announcement early so that the city has sufficient time finding a replacement.

“I loved it and it’s been a wonderful job and it’s a wonderful city,” Phelps said last week.

In recent weeks there has been a newspaper advertisement alluding to Phelps’ resignation. Phelps said he wanted to “clarify” that he is retiring, not resigning his position. The word has spread around Whitefish.

“I’ve had so many friends come up to me and say, ‘What’s this about a resignation?’” Phelps said. “There is no resignation; I’m retiring. The word that got out was misleading, so I would like to at least set the record straight.”

Shortly after Phelps moved to Whitefish 15 years ago, he began working as city attorney on contract through his law firm Hedman, Hileman and Lacosta. After 10 years, he said the rapidly growing city needed an in-house attorney to handle the increasing workload, so officials asked him to come on full-time. He has held that position since.

Phelps made his decision some time ago and met with Jenson in July, before the Montana Supreme Court upheld a district court decision against the city totaling $440,000. The court ruled that the city had violated a couple’s rights by not denying them a building exemption permit. Phelps said neither that ruling nor any other case was a factor in his decision to retire.

Phelps has no plans to open up a private practice, but he could do part-time work for the city if asked. He might also do work for other cities and public agencies, as well as volunteer work for nonprofits. Among the cases still on his plate is the ongoing legal tussle with Flathead County over jurisdiction of the “planning doughnut.”

City Manager Chuck Stearns said the council won’t likely begin searching for a replacement until next year, after the newly elected councilors are sworn in. Phelps hopes one is found early enough that his term will overlap to allow for the two to work together, easing the transition.

“It has been an extreme honor to serve as Whitefish city attorney for the last 14 years,” Phelps said in his letter to council, “and I have enjoyed immensely my relationships with the current council, former councils, and city staff. When the time comes to step down, I will miss all of you very much.”

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