Divisions Grow on Libby City Council

By Beacon Staff

A disagreement between Libby City Councilor Allen Olsen and the rest of the board has led the city to look at how it assigns councilors to committees. The issue of committee assignments, Olsen’s residency and the power of Mayor Doug Roll all came up during a recent committee meeting, in a disagreement that Council President Bill Bischoff called “hugely frustrating.”

Olsen was elected to the council in November 2011, but the Libby native has been a regular at the meetings for years. Since taking office, various issues have arisen and most notable are claims that he doesn’t live within city limits. Because of that, Roll has not assigned him to any committees.

Olsen said although part of the year he lives at his tree nursery, located along U.S. Highway 2 just south of town, he does rent a home on Louisiana Avenue in Libby.

“It’s just that I wasn’t hand picked,” Olsen said about the controversy. “I ask extra questions and don’t always go with the flow.”

Roll disagreed.

“He worked the system to get on council and now he’s mad that I won’t put him on committees,” Roll said. “Everyone understands that this is a group thing and nothing will get done if you don’t work together, but (Olsen) just doesn’t understand that.”

The mayor said one of the biggest issues is that Olsen began renting a house in Libby just so he could qualify to run for city council, a fact no one denies. Olsen acknowledged renting the home in June 2010, but even if he only lives there part time, he believes he still qualifies to be appointed to committees. Since Roll hasn’t done that, Olsen said the mayor is not doing his job and is abusing his power. It’s a sentiment backed up by former city councilor D.C. Orr.

“I suffered from the same slings and arrows from Doug Roll that Allen Olsen is suffering now,” Orr said. “It’s an abuse of authority. He thinks that because he’s the mayor he can say, ‘I don’t like that guy, even if he was elected by the people.’”

Orr said that an oft-overlooked city code requires Roll to appoint Olsen to a committee. City code 2.64.030 is found under the section about the cemetery committee and reads, “There is created as an additional committee of the city council, the cemetery committee, consisting of three members of the council to be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, the same as other committees of the council.”

But Roll and City Attorney James Reintsma said there is nothing in the city code that says the mayor must appoint every councilor to a committee or that he is even the one to make such appointments. “There is no right or wrong,” Reintsma said.

Yet while Olsen hasn’t been formally appointed to anything, other councilors who chair various committees say they have invited him to take part in their meetings. Barb Desch chairs the streets and sidewalks committee and said she invited Olsen to replace Orr on the committee, when he lost his reelection last year. As far as she is concerned, Olsen is a member of the committee.

The committee assignments were discussed at a June 12 special meeting called by Bischoff (a meeting that both Olsen and Orr said was illegal because it was not called by the mayor, which Roll and Reintsma deny). During the meeting, council members attempted to create a formal policy about how people would be appointed to boards.

Although everyone agreed that progress was made during the meeting, which was not attended by the mayor, other issues were raised by Olsen. He alleged items don’t make it on to meeting agendas; the city withholds public records; and the tree board doesn’t spend its money locally. According to Olsen, most of the grant money the board receives is spent out of town, a statement refuted by committee chair Vicky Lawrence. According to her, between 2005 and 2012, the city of Libby has spent more than $125,000 on trees, more than $107,000 of which was spent locally.

Lawrence said it is one of many issues that have arisen since Olsen joined the council and she doesn’t think it will get any better in the future.

“I don’t understand why anyone would attack volunteers who do a lot to make Libby a better place,” Lawrence said. “I find Mr. Olsen to be a very critical person. I think that he is going to have difficulty working together with five other council members and the mayor in reaching solutions that best serve the interests of all the people of Libby.”

But Olsen said that most of the problems begin with Roll, who he called a “dictator.” Olsen even went as far as comparing the issues in Libby to the recent political unrest just down the road in Troy.

“Like other people have said, we’re becoming an East Troy,” he said.

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