Mayor Recall Wears on Troy
As voting starts in Donald Banning’s recall, locals say the dispute is hurting town’s image
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TROY – It’s not often that a reporter from out of town walks into Tina Moore’s Preview Cafe and starts asking questions. But with all that has happened in Troy and its government over the last few months, no one seemed that surprised.
“Now be careful what you say Tina, you’ve got friends on both sides,” a patron yelled into the kitchen as he finished his hamburger.
These days, just about everyone in this town of 900, a few miles down U.S. Highway 2 from the Idaho border, has an opinion about the dispute between a few members of the city council and Mayor Donald Banning, who is facing a recall election this month. Because of the dispute, the full city council has not met since March and many residents are growing frustrated with what they think is a distraction from the town’s real issues.
“It’s just silly,” Moore said flatly. “People wish their elected officials would move on to Troy’s matters, not their personal matters.”
In late January, City Councilor Fran McCully began circulating a petition to recall Banning. Among the reasons she gave were that Banning had tried to fire City Attorney Charles Evans without consent from the city council; that in March 2011 the mayor cashed a check to cover travel expenses that were never approved; that Banning had gone ahead with the construction of a picnic area at a local park and never consulted the council; and that Banning had gone forward with the codification of city ordinances but never told anyone.
McCully said Banning, who had served on the council since 2000, has been defiant since he was elected mayor in November 2009. For his part, Banning said he has only been doing his job and the recall is an effort by McCully and Council President Phil Fisher to gain more power.
“I’d like to be able to do my job and not have to answer to those people,” Banning told the Beacon in February. “They have to answer to me.”
In early February, McCully filed a petition for recall with Lincoln County election officials, along with an affidavit supporting it. Once the petition was deemed legitimate, Banning was told that he would have to step down or face an election. Instead he filed a temporary injunction and restraining order against the recall. On March 14, both sides met in Lincoln County District Court to make their arguments. Banning and his attorney Jim Reintsma said that while mistakes had been made, everything was corrected by the time McCully filed the recall and therefore she lied in her affidavit.
But Judge Jim Wheelis disagreed, and on March 20 ruled that the recall election would move forward. He wrote, “This court concludes that Mayor Banning’s acts were not simple mistakes, but a concerted intent to ignore the council, the state statutes and the (City of Troy’s) Charter.”
Election officials then moved forward and ballots were sent to voters in Troy on April 30. All of them are due back May 24 and will be counted that night. Meanwhile, Banning said he has appealed the lower court’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
Since the recall began, the Troy City Council has accomplished little, a point of frustration for many residents. The last time all four members of the council and the mayor met for a regular city council meeting was Feb. 15. The full council also met on March 29 for a special meeting to try to temporarily fill the city attorney position (Evans was terminated by the council on Feb. 15). Since then, members of the council have missed meetings for various reasons, including sickness, work and family.
Because the city council has not even appointed a temporary city attorney, the town may not be able to prosecute those who have broken city ordinances, including traffic violations. Banning said because there’s no prosecuting attorney, charges may have to be dropped and paid bonds returned.
From Moore’s Preview Cafe to the bars on Yaak Avenue, the mayoral recall has become “the talk of the town” and many people are unhappy with the mayor, the council, or both, while others won’t talk about it because they know those involved. Moore said the council should get back to the people’s business, such as cleaning up the entrance to town and making some improvements to the park.
“They are spending taxpayers’ money and wasting people’s time when they could be getting us swings at the park (for the kids),” she said. “Quit fighting and get us a pool!”
Moore, who owns the cafe and neighboring one-screen movie theater, said she doesn’t believe the mayor or council members wanted to get elected just to “screw the town over,” but does believe they have lost sight of what is best for the community. She said if the council and mayor could work together to make Troy a more attractive place, more tourists would come and spend money.
David Hall, who works at the combination hardware store and pharmacy on Highway 2, thinks the council has lost its ability to work together and wants to see all five elected leaders booted from office.
“This is the type of stuff you expect from Washington D.C., not Troy, Montana. It’s embarrassing,” Hall said. “They are just a bunch of clowns and they’ve turned the town into a circus.”
Hall, like many others in town, is worried that Troy’s image has been damaged because of the infighting. He said the town needs new, levelheaded leaders who can compromise, adding that when election season arrives he would consider running for council himself. Hall said he knows Banning personally, but thinks it would be best if he stepped down.
Banning said he plans on remaining in office and maintains that he has done nothing wrong. He said it would be worse if he’s forced out of office and McCully and Fisher remain. He said if councilors, including Fisher and McCully, continue to miss meetings it would be grounds for their termination, according to Montana Code Annotated 7-4-4111, which states that a municipal office is vacant after three months, unless someone is sick or has an approved absence.
“They are not living up to the responsibility of representing the people of this town,” Banning said. “They’re dragging us down.”
McCully and Fisher wrote in a joint letter to area newspapers that one of the reasons they have missed recent meetings to appoint a temporary city attorney (which has been on the agenda of seven regular or special meetings since January) was because the mayor canceled the April 2 gathering and proposed a meeting the following day to hire a permanent attorney. McCully said a permanent attorney shouldn’t be hired until after the recall. She also denies the recall is personal.
“I have no personal issues; I just want the city to be run efficiently,” McCully said.
But at the bars on Yaak Avenue, along the railroad tracks that split town, people tell a different story. At the VFW and The Home Bar, established in 1914, a year before Troy was incorporated, even those who signed the recall petition are starting to second guess how they will vote. As one bartender said, “It’s becoming a pissing match.”
Buck Buchanan, who was playing an afternoon game of pool at The Home Bar, said he thinks most of the blame lies with Banning, but that all of them bear some responsibility. More than anything, the 40-year resident of Troy is just disappointed.
“It’s stupid,” he said. “It ain’t like what Troy used to be.”