Libby City Councilor Allen Olsen has been threatened with censure for criticizing the work of a local water irrigation company during city council meetings. Olsen, who owns Antler Tree Nursery, which also completes irrigation work, was told in a Sept. 13 memo by City Attorney James Reintsma that his “continued attacks” on Jack’s Water Works are a liability for the city and “need to come to a screeching stop.”
But Olsen, who is running against Mayor Doug Roll for Libby’s top spot, said he is simply doing his job and that Roll is the one behind the censure.
“There have been all sorts of issues brought up about Allen Olsen because it’s an election year,” Olsen said. “I do believe that Mayor Roll is behind this.”
Roll said that’s untrue and the city attorney was reacting to a letter from Jack Ehmann of Jack’s Water Works. According to Montana Code Annotated, a censure is a way for a council to “punish its members for improper conduct.” Reintsma said punishment could range from a public apology to expulsion.
Problems first arose in 2012 when Jack’s Water Works was chosen to install a new irrigation system at Libby’s Riverfront Park for $25,000. Roll called the bid “reasonable,” but Olsen, referencing his experience installing similar water systems, said the bid was too high.
“I have not bad-mouthed Jack’s Water Works, I’ve only questioned his bills,” Olsen said. “I raised a big stink because they were charging $25,000 for a $10,000 job.”
But Roll said Olsen has been overly critical of Ehmann’s company.
“Allen Olsen started calling Jack’s Water Works a crook and I told him that he was breaking ethical codes and that it was wrong,” Roll said.
In July 2012, Councilor Bill Bischoff asked Reintsma to look into whether Olsen’s comments violated Montana law. On July 6, Reintsma sent the council a memo saying Olsen was “walk(ing) a very fine line” because he was both a public official and competitor of Ehmann. He concluded, “It would behoove the Council and Mayor to keep a very close watch and rein on issues involving Councilman Olsen and sprinklers/nurseries. Mr. Olsen should also do his best to control his commentary as his limited protection as a council member does not keep him from being personally liable (in addition to the City) for his comments.”
Olsen says he is not a competitor with Jack’s Water Works because he cannot bid on city projects. He said he has been critical of bills from all of the city’s contractors and that it’s part of his job to make sure the taxpayers money is being spent appropriately.
“I’m out to scrutinize all of the bills of Libby, Montana,” Olsen said. “The bills (from Jack’s Water Works) have been too high and they haven’t been itemized. I want to know what he’s doing and what parts he’s using.”
On Aug. 19, Ehmann wrote a letter to the city asking for meeting minutes, notes and emails where Olsen mentioned his business. He alleged that Olsen had continued to make “derogatory” remarks about his business and that if it continued he would consider legal action.
“His unprofessional behavior reflects on the council as a whole when he constantly berates myself and my work during the official council meetings where he should be setting an example of integrity and unbiased as he serves on a seat,” Ehmann wrote.
Nearly a month after Ehmann’s letter, Reintsma issued another memo to the city council suggesting the board censure Olsen for his continued remarks. Reintsma said Olsen should apologize to Ehmann and that the censure would help distance the city from Olsen and protect it from potential legal actions. He writes, “Continued aggression against Water Works should result in Mr. Olsen’s removal from the Council.”
“The memos were drafted to get Mr. Olsen to be a little more delicate when he addresses his competition,” Reintsma told the Beacon. “There is a line that can be crossed and I think he’s crossing it.”
“I think James Reintsma should stick to doing his job, which isn’t to convince the council to take a specific action,” Olsen said.
Reintsma said he can only recommend an action and that nothing can happen unless the city council picks up the issue. Roll said he would let the council decide if it wants to punish Olsen for the comments.
Roll and Olsen have battled back and forth since the councilor was first elected in November 2011. In 2012, Roll refused to formally put Olsen on any committees because he alleged the councilor did not live within city limits. This year, Olsen blasted Roll for fixing a city-owned vehicle at his garage. Most recently, in July, Olsen and Roll butted heads over the lease of a city-owned asphalt zipper. Olsen announced he was running against Roll in June.
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