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Helena City Commission votes to dissolve, replace Civic Center advisory board

Posted at 10:57 PM, Dec 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-17 00:57:13-05

The Helena City Commission has officially voted to dissolve the advisory board for the Helena Civic Center.

On Monday night, city commissioners Andres Haladay, Ed Noonan, Heather O'Loughlin and Kali Wicks voted in favor of a resolution to end the current board and “identify or create” a new advisory body to support and oversee the Civic Center by January 2021. Mayor Wilmot Collins was not present for the meeting.

Haladay said a change in the advisory structure was the best way to move the facility forward.

“This commission’s goal is preservation of the facility; it’s moving forward with substantive programming – and that’s the same thing that’s been said at every meeting where we’ve discussed this,” he said.

Monday’s vote came after several months of disputes between the board and the commission. Earlier this year, many board members expressed strong opposition to city leaders’ plan to move responsibility for the Civic Center from the Community Facilities Department to the Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department. Commissioners, in turn, accused the board members of spreading misinformation about the move. Both sides pointed to a breakdown in effective communication between the commission and the board.

The city has previously announced it is looking into ways to generally address what leaders see as inefficiencies in some of Helena’s advisory boards. However, commissioners said Monday they had specific concerns about the Civic Center board, which is different from those other boards in a number of ways. The Civic Center board managed its own bank account until earlier this year, and its members do not have term limits.

More than a dozen members of the public testified Monday night about the proposal to dissolve the board.

Supporters of the resolution said they didn’t believe the Civic Center was being used to its full potential, and that this change would put it on a new path.

“The city commission should seek to provide a board structure that looks to the future and to increased utilization of the Civic Center,” said Pat Keim, president of the Helena Symphony board.

Some suggested the board members had not been receptive to proposed changes aimed at bringing in a greater variety of events and more revenue.

Opponents of the change – including several current members of the board – said the board wasn’t standing in the way of changes. Board president Judy Kline said they only made recommendations, and staff members were ultimately responsible for the programming.

Board members said, over the years, they had put in important work to support the Civic Center, especially through annual fundraising events.

“Let’s work together, instead of casting aside the board members that care about this building, and most importantly the community,” said board member Kathleen Pace.

Several of the people who testified Monday questioned whether this process was the best way to bring about positive change. Brian Kahn suggested the commission could wait until next month – when two newly elected commissioners will take their seats – and work to find a solution all sides can agree on.

“If you vote on this resolution tonight – the way it’s written, singling out this advisory board – it’s going to maintain the polarization in this community around this issue and other issues that are not necessary,” he said. “If you take some time – you’re people of good faith and good will; you’ll have support for reevaluation on a broad basis.”

But O’Loughlin said the process to find a new advisory body would ensure more perspectives from around the community are heard.

“Many in the community feel that we are wanting to eliminate public input on the operations of the Civic Center, when in my view, I think we’re doing the opposite,” she said. “I think we’re opening up this process.”

City manager Ana Cortez said the dissolution of the Civic Center board will take effect on Tuesday. She said city leaders will then start planning how to choose a new advisory structure. She said the public will have an important role in that process.

“In order to have a legitimate, authentic, sound community process, we will have to engage with community members,” said Cortez.