Disclaimer: Writer Gail Marvel served on Montrose City Council (2008-2012). She attended this meeting as a reporter for the Mirror and did not participate in the discussion.
By Gail Marvel
MONTROSE-With 100 people and standing room only, organizer Marge Morgenstern began the meeting billed for promoting city council candidates for the April 2016 election with, “I’m overwhelmed with the number of people [who turned out].”
Ascertaining that not all in attendance were friendly faces Ms. Morgenstern said, “Some of you are here because you are a pipeline to [Montrose City Manager] Bill Bell. If you are here as a pipeline to Bell I’m going to ask you to leave. …This is not an open meeting for city council, this is a private meeting.”
The outcry from city supporters was immediate to which Morgenstern replied, “I won’t allow it, if you won’t leave we won’t have a meeting. Meeting adjourned. Goodbye.”
Audience members refused to leave and comments included, “You seem so hostile!” “You are a piece of work lady!” “This is a public meeting that you announced in the paper.” In attendance were a number of county residents, as well as neighboring county residents, who have no vote in city elections.
Threats, from both supporters and detractors, to use 911 and call the police might have been taken more seriously had there not been four city police officers in the room. When people chose not to leave Morgenstern continued the meeting, but applied an element of control to those who were allowed to speak.
The stated purpose of the meeting was to encourage city council candidates for the 2016 election; however, subcategories brought up by Morgenstern included the treatment of 60 city employees who lost their jobs; city employee morale; gag orders on some city departments; current city employees who fear losing their jobs and having written reprimands put in their personnel file if they speak up; the proposed dispatch center; the salaries of top city administrators; personal use of city vehicles and equipment; Bill Bell assembling a team (at this and other meetings) to squelch community/employee comments; and local contractors not getting contracts.
The subcategories clouded the stated intent of the meeting and brought audience reaction, “She is a bully, demanding people leave the room.” “I believe there is very little truth in what was heard from Marge.” “If you make accusations you need to back them up.” Ms. Morgenstern maintained that her comments could easily be fact checked.
Three former city council members spoke during the meeting. Former Montrose Mayor Jose Abeyta noted that people who run for council should try to better the community, but the atmosphere in the room was disturbing. He said, “This thing of bullying, we talk about bullying in our schools…What are we doing right here? If that’s where you want the city to go, keep up those attitudes.” At one point during the meeting Abeyta half-way rose from his chair and LJ (Jim) Anderson said, “Jose, will you sit down.”
Former Montrose Mayor Pro-Tem Carol McDermott mentioned the need for council candidates to be respectful of each other’s time and be prepared for meetings. McDermott stressed the importance of becoming educated in city issues and she cautioned people not to run if they had an ax to grind, “I ran with an ax to grind and it didn’t do me any good. I did not seek re-election because a fellow councilman was wasting my time. He would not come prepared.”
Former councilman Ed Ulibarri said, “I didn’t come here to listen to everyone’s anger about what other people are doing, or not doing. The goal is to make Montrose a good place to live. We have an obligation to work together and bring the community together.”
Former employees, along with their spouses, lent support to Morgenstern’s statements and told of the difficult position that current employees are in. A man from the audience said, “Why do they stay?” To which one woman replied, “They have families to feed.”
Referring to the suggestion of an employee gag order, 27-year city employee Virgil Turner, the city’s director of innovation and citizen engagement said, “I’ve never seen one.” To which Jerry Sieverson a former employee of 36 years responded, “It depends on what department you work for.” One audience member suggested that if the statements of former employees are accurate they should being a class action suit against the city.
Montrose Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jenni Sopsic asked about the motivating factor behind calling the meeting and wondered if there was something more than City Manager Bell eliminating the Parks Advisory Council, of which Ms. Morgenstern was a member. Morgenstern elaborated on the past efforts of the board, but said the elimination of the board was not her motivation.
Councilman Bob Nicholson, who was mayor at the time the board was dissolved, said he was the one who put the issue on the council agenda. Nicholson said, “The Parks Advisory Council works for the council. You [the board] started to move into administrative [issues] and we cannot do that. You were slipping into administration when you were talking about employees.” Nicholson said he realized there were some hard feelings; “I should have talked to every member.”
The meeting ended after an hour and a half. However, the meetings after the meeting were scattered throughout the room, outside the front door and in the parking lot. It would be an overstatement to say that anything was solved, or resolved at the meeting.
It is also unknown if any potential city council candidates were at the meeting, but if so, welcome to the world of Montrose politics.