Commissioners weigh in on Wilderness Study Area dispute

The “Commissioner’s Minute” took longer than 60 seconds at Tuesday’s meeting, as City commissioners Dave Byerly, Patty Turk, Clint Loomis, Diane Oldenburg and Gayle Doney chimed in on a hot issue facing Central Montana today.

The conversation began after Byerly brought up the Fergus County Commissioners’ public meeting (which took place Wednesday) and their support of Senator Steve Daines’ bill on Wilderness Study Areas, which includes the Big Snowies.

This bill concerns Byerly, and he’s made this no secret, appearing in videos, advertisements and op-eds around the state. He’s concerned because – if the bill is passed – the Snowies could lose their protection, which could have a negative impact to the area’s economic development. Byerly believes the people have a voice, which is why he was surprised there were no public meetings on the subject before this week. Byerly and fellow commissioners believe they have a voice in this debate, as the bill has consequences for the City, especially since the WSA in question involves the Madison Aquifer.

“This is our water source,” Byerly said. “We have a stake in this.”

Commission Chair Patty Turk agreed.

“This is our mountain,” she said.

Turk said she is particularly frustrated with the process after receiving a phone call from Daines’ headquarters recently. It did not go well.

“I was asked for a comment and I told the woman I was not willing to comment,” Turk said. “Then she told me, ‘I don’t know why the City feels like they should have any say…she had a tone to her voice.”

Loomis, a new commissioner, said he’s particularly passionate about the people having a voice on this issue because of the impact it could have on the City’s water.

“I’m not saying our water is being threatened – I’m not going there but it’s an issue here, and we have an important stake in it,” he said.

Byerly agreed.

“Half the people in Fergus County live in the City limits, so I do believe we have role,” he said. “We are all county residents and a majority of the people in the county are dependent for their water by the Madison Aquifer in the Snowies.”

The fact that a conversation didn’t take place before the bill was drafted continues to shock Byerly.

“No one asked anybody here what we think about this,” he said. “It would have been nice to have been asked. I think we as City Commissioners should have been some of the first people Daines talked to and asked for an opinion on this. We could have talked about it and brought it to the public.”

Oldenburg also expressed her opinion on this matter, expressing concern for the lack of process involved.

“I think [the current administration] is taking away some of the protections people have to stand up for their rights,” she said. “Some of those laws are being slumped off.”

Commissioner Gayle Doney, who also expressed concerns, recommended commissioners put the issue on their agenda and hold a public hearing. Other commissioners were in favor of the idea.

“I think it’s wrong if we sit back and act like this doesn’t impact the City,” Oldenburg said. “We should have a voice.”

Other Business

• City commissioners unanimously approved the final conceptual design of Creekside Marketplace and Pavilion, moving the project forward to the bidding phase.

• The Water Department plans to start chlorinating the water system Monday, Feb. 26, according to City Manager Holly Phelps’ report Tuesday.

“The goal is to maintain a chlorine residual for a minimum of 30 days in all parts of the distribution system,” Phelps said in the meeting. “We are estimating that it will take approximately 15 days to slowly build up a chlorine residual throughout the system.”

Phelps said this chlorination process is a requirement by the Department of Environmental Quality due to positive samples of coliform bacteria in the past.

• Phelps sent bids to seven contractors for the Lewistown Public Library’s exterior repair project. Bids for the project will open March 14. Library Board Chair Mary Frieze thanked Phelps for getting the bids out and moving forward with this project.

• Commissioners approved Power Mercantile building owner Lisa Wright’s request for property tax benefits through the tax abatement program. The building was vacant for four years before she purchased it, therefore qualifying her for benefits, as she is in the process of a renovation “intended to provide turn key commercial space.”

According to a project description, the Power Mercantile property “will be commercial lease space encompassing uses from office, retail or dining.”

• Lewistown Police Officer Levi Talkington visited with commissioners about LPD’s process regarding the disposal of certain unclaimed tangible personal property that comes into their possession. Much of the property sits in evidence for years, some is auctioned off and some is used by the LPD. Money from the auction goes directly into the City General Fund, Talkington said. The process was reviewed and unanimously approved by commissioners.

• Kyle Dubbs was approved to the Historic Resources Commission to a two-year term, filling the seventh and final seat on the commission.

• Commissioners approved and appointed successor trustees for the Lewistown Tourism Business Improvement District No.1. According to Phelps, TBID is doing a great service for the community, as the $1 bed tax they impose for the hotels with more than 12 rooms inside City limits accrues approximately $50,000 a year.

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