New Whitefish City Attorney Begins July 1

By Beacon Staff

The last time Mary VanBuskirk called Northwest Montana home was at the close of the 1960s, when she was an operator agent for Great Northern Railway working along the fringes of Glacier National Park.

She returns four decades later with a decidedly different job description, yet the same enthusiasm for this beautiful area of the Treasure State. VanBuskirk has been hired to become Whitefish’s second in-house city attorney, replacing the retired John Phelps.

Phelps believes Whitefish is in good hands. While choosing his replacement was the city council’s decision, Phelps said, if the choice was his, he would have selected VanBuskirk. She begins work on July 1.

“I didn’t know her well but I knew her and respected her,” Phelps said. “She’s just an extremely skilled and experienced attorney, so I think Whitefish is very fortunate.”

VanBuskirk comes from Havre, where she has been an attorney since 1978. She obtained both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Montana. Since 1981, she has been a partner in the firm of Bosch, Kuhr, Dugdale, Martin and Kaze in Havre.

Her areas of concentration are employment and civil litigation, and her work has spanned a large cross-section of employment law: labor relations, policy development, internal investigations, discrimination claims and more.

VanBuskirk also has extensive experience working with government entities. Havre, which doesn’t have an in-house city attorney, has contracted VanBuskirk for both civil and criminal matters. VanBuskirk has done civil attorney work for Havre for 28 years and criminal work for 17 years.

Interlocal agreements, which people in Whitefish know well, have popped up multiple times in her time as a city attorney. Whitefish has been engaged in a long-running legal tussle with Flathead County to decide jurisdiction over a roughly two-mile area called the “planning doughnut” surrounding city limits.

Though VanBuskirk said she would like to settle into the job before she starts discussing what might be the biggest tasks awaiting her, Phelps said the doughnut issue will certainly be near the top of the list. Phelps also said, right out of the gate, VanBuskirk will be faced with the medical marijuana zoning dilemma.

Phelps may be officially retired, but he still will lend a helping hand to the city of Whitefish. The city council recently approved a two-year contract for Phelps, stipulating that he is available to assist the city and VanBuskirk when called upon in exchange for the city paying health insurance for him and his wife.

With the contract, Phelps said he “won’t do actual lawyering,” but will provide institutional knowledge and advice. Phelps has been Whitefish’s city attorney since 1995. In some instances, rather than digging through years of files, the city will be able to simply call Phelps to answer a question.

VanBuskirk’s starting salary, according to City Manager Chuck Stearns, is $75,000 plus $10,000 to cover health insurance.

While VanBuskirk recalls her railroad days in Northwest Montana fondly, she is fully aware that it’s a totally different world here now. But she is ready for the challenge and, furthermore, she likes what she’s seen in Whitefish’s evolution.

“Good things are happening in Whitefish,” VanBuskirk said. “This is going to be a great job. It’s a fairly innovative, unique governance in the city of Whitefish. They’re known for being innovative and creative. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity.”