Bozeman’s elected officials had a four-hour meeting centered on an admission: They overstepped boundaries and encroached on the work of the city’s top official.

Bozeman’s form of government relies on elected leaders to set policy part-time and the city manager to see it through. Commissioners said this week they sometimes blurred the line between the two.

Mayor Cyndy Andrus called for the meeting the same week the town’s city manager of two years announced she was leaving for a new job. It was also less than a month before Bozeman’s next mayor takes the helm.

That would be Deputy Mayor Chris Mehl, who has said it may be time to consider restructuring the city’s government.

Andrus, who will still have a commission seat come January, said this meeting about boundaries was important now.

“I wanted to deal with this concern before my term as mayor ends,” she said.

Andrus said more importantly, the manager heading out the door and commissioners’ interim pick could weigh in.

“The last two years during my term as mayor, I’ve been involved or observed or have been made aware of a situation where I believe the commission has stepped out of their lane when interacting with the staff as required in our charter,” Andrus said. “This has resulted in confusion, misunderstanding, humiliation, disruption of workflow and lack of public trust.”

Commissioners voted 4-0 to adopt a set of “norms” on how they interact with city staff. The vote put in writing:

Commissioners wouldn’t ask city staff to contact a constituent.

They wouldn’t go to a staff meeting without the manager’s invitation.

They wouldn’t try to “pressure or influence” staff without a commission majority.

They wouldn’t ask staff a question outside commission meetings without going through the manager.

Each commissioner at the meeting said they crossed lines.

“Much of this document, I could stand up and say ‘guilty,’” Commissioner Jeff Kruass said.

Ron Brey, Bozeman’s assistant city manager from 1998 to 2008, thanked commissioners for talking about the “imbalance of power” between them and city staff.

“I’ve been with three city managers and dozens of commissioners and the severity of the problem varied tremendously over time depending on the individuals involved,” Brey said.

Several — including a person who helped draft the city’s rules — said the new norms were too narrow. Former Bozeman mayor Carson Taylor said he didn’t know what provoked the norms in the two years since he left the body, but said he feared they were too restrictive.

Commissioner Terry Cunningham said the resolution resembles rules he’s followed in other businesses.

“If this is considered restrictive, restrictive worked because we had the discipline to stay in our lanes,” Cunningham said.

“A DISTRACTION”

In a recent interview, now former city manager Andrea Surratt repeated she’s leaving Bozeman to be closer to family. The new job also puts her in a bigger market — a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia — with higher pay — roughly $222,000 a year compared to $158,000.

When commissioners accepted Surratt’s resignation on Dec. 9, she said what drew her to Bozeman are the same reasons it’s hard to leave. She said Bozeman has a forward-looking commission, high-performing city staff and is a town where people care.

“I’m a glass is half-full kind of person, so I’ll try to keep it there,” Surratt said.

Bozeman has what’s often called a weak-mayor form of government. The city’s five commissioners are part-time. All, including the mayor, need a majority to get something from the commission chambers to staff.

The city manager is the one person the commission hires, fires and directs. That person also oversees the city’s 400 employees and roughly $120 million budget.

Wednesday was the first time commissioners formally interpreted a piece of the charter Bozeman voters passed in 2006: Commissioners can’t give “orders” to employees or deal with those directed by the manager.

Surratt said it’s not uncommon in a city manager-led government to have to remind elected leaders “to practice that.”

“That’s just part of my job,” she said. “I think it’s come up enough in Bozeman, it’s been a distraction.”

Wednesday wasn’t the first time commission overstep came up.

At an annual ethics training in October, commissioners debated when it was OK to join staff meetings revolving around outreach for top city priorities.

Surratt said the charter built limitations between commissioners and staff, but outreach was an area she was “willing to be creative.”

“We come with titles and your title as commissioners or mayor carries with it a degree of respect and interaction. You have a role. When the roles get blurred, it’s harder to manage,” Surratt said.

“So I’m offering up a small opportunity to have more interaction and partnership. I’m really not interested to have interaction that puts staff in a bad place, that allows one [commissioner] to be more influential than another.”

When asked by commissioners, Surratt said staff told her when commission interactions put them in an uncomfortable situation.

“I’ve tried to address those when I could with the individual commissioners,” Surratt said.

BALANCING THE POWER

The 10-page document adopted this week covered how elected officials could treat city employees during commission meetings and when they can interact with employees outside of that.

It put in writing that commissioners wouldn’t use language “a reasonable person would find humiliating, intimidating, hostile or offensive.”

Cunningham said there have been times commission questions during staff presentations turned into a debate or public criticism, noting he knows at least once an employee was driven to tears after a commission meeting.

“I think a situation where a staff member is reduced to tears, crying in their car wondering whether they should come back to work tomorrow is a shame. It should never have happened,” he said.

The norms state criticism of staff should be made in private to the city manager.

“It’s incumbent upon us to recognize that we have one employee, that is the city manager,” Cunningham said.

Commissioners said outside of their regular meeting, sometimes it’s hard to know where the line is. It’s complicated. The city charter allows for “inquiries” without defining the scope.

“Unfortunately so many times ‘inquiry’ becomes intercession or intimidation and a method of bypassing city administration,” Krauss said.

Commissioners said they sent questions to staff that should have started with the manager.

Cunningham said at one point he showed up to a staff meeting to learn more before realizing his presence changed the tone in the room. Krauss said he’s not known for holding back criticism of staff during commission meetings. The mayor said she has knocked on the city manager’s door without scheduling an appointment.

In a separate interview, Mehl said he should have said more clearly during Wednesday’s meeting “there’s great room for improvement.”

“I made mistakes, the discussion was helpful,” said Mehl, adding each city manager will have a different process commissioners have to learn.

Mehl said he had occasionally met with staff to get a feel for what was happening in town before the city manager asked him to stop. In the October ethics training, Mehl said he wished he could meet with staff more, but heard the city manager.

A line in Wednesday’s resolution said city employees are “empowered and encouraged” to tell commissioners when they’re stepping out of bounds.

Surratt said Wednesday that’s something she’s told staff before.

“It is not easy to say that,” she said. “It can invoke a response from the commissioner that people don’t want to receive and that’s a problem. So I think they are concerned to speak up. I think as a goal, this organization can evolve to a point where that’s not a conversation one has to have.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Krauss, whose term ends this month after 16 years as a commissioner, called Wednesday’s meeting a “redrawing of the line” between Bozeman’s city-manager form of government and commissioners.

Mehl, whose term as mayor begins next month, said he thinks the city manager has an important role in Bozeman and the city’s charter is working well. But he added being a part-time commissioner is getting more difficult. He has been on the board for 10 years.

He said it may be time to consider updating the charter and making the mayoral seat a full-time position.

He left his job at Headwaters Economics in preparation to serve as mayor, saying the commitment is a full-time job.

He said Bozeman is growing fast and the city’s ratio of staff-to-citizens is dropping. At the same time, people either have to be well-off or retired to serve as an elected official, Mehl said.

“It’s an incremental improvement,” Mehl said. “All the checks and balances that are there now would likely remain, what you’ve done there is increase the likelihood that a directly accountable person, elected by the voters, has more time to go out and listen to the people.”

He said he’s not interested to make “a position to fill the position.”

Mehl called reviewing Bozeman’s government structure the “beginning of the beginning.” It’s something he could see commissioners discuss in 2020 and, if there’s enough interest, potentially study the following year.

Plus, Bozeman’s setup is clear for the next four years. Mehl has two years with the mayoral gavel before Andrus, fresh off another election win, rotates back into the role for another term.

Andrus said she’s “heard rumors” Mehl is interested in having changing Bozeman’s form of government. She said that wasn’t why she called Wednesday’s meeting, but said the meeting was a good reminder to commissioners “that this is our form of government, this is how we choose to run ourselves.”

“I like our form of government,” Andrus said. “I like that we are a charter form of government with a city manager kind of embedded in that and I think that serves us well.”

Commissioner Cunningham said he doesn’t think now is the time to talk about changing Bozeman’s government.

“I think it could be detrimental to our ability to recruit and hire the strongest possible [city manager] candidate. I don’t know the value of initiating these conversations because I don’t see a consensus among either the community or the commission that this discussion is needed,” he said. “Ideas like this need to be brought up on Monday nights under the glare of the lights.”

Surratt, the outgoing city manager, said Mehl was the only commissioner to bring up a potential change to Bozeman’s government with her.

“It was not a comfortable conversation,” she said.

She said she asked whether her role would change.

“We have the charter, we’re trying to get a lot of work done, this is the form of government I swore an oath to follow and this is what I’m trying to do and everything else is just a distraction,” she said.

Surratt said that would remain the same until a majority of commissioners said otherwise.

City Attorney Greg Sullivan said there are a few ways the city could change its charter, all would ultimately lead to Bozeman voters deciding.

First, under Montana law local governments have to ask voters every 10 years whether they want to create a study commission to evaluate the town’s existing form and powers. Bozeman’s next vote is due 2024.

A city commission majority could call for that vote earlier than that 10-year window, as could a petition by voters.

Or the study could be skipped all together. A commission majority could decide to take the issue to the ballot or a citizen-led initiative that garners enough support.

Mehl said he’s not sure he would support a change until the possibility was studied. He said commissioners and Bozeman voters may decide they like what they have.

“I’m just suggesting that we look at it,” he said. “Which is different than saying ‘I’m going to vote for this.’”

In the meantime, Mehl said finding a new manager to lead city hall will be one of the most important tasks when the next commission meets come January.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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