After serving a bit more than five years on the Libby City Council, a period rife with controversy, contention and drama that often found him sparring with city attorneys and fellow council members and in which he prevailed against a city lawsuit against him, Allen Olsen announced his resignation last week effective April 27.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Olsen said he resigned little more than a year into his second consecutive four-year term, which would have ended November 2019, to focus on family and work.
“I’m a single father of a 5-year-old boy and I run three businesses,” he said. With his tree nursery and landscaping businesses booked solid with work almost two months out, “it’s just become overwhelming and so it was just time for me (to leave).”
Olsen said his decision to resign was at least five months in the making. He originally planned to leave the City Council by April 1, but postponed his departure when Janelle Campbell announced her resignation in March.
“I figured I’d give it another month because I didn’t want two people resigning (from the City Council) at the same time,” he said.
Olsen, who said he decided to run for City Council to fight what he saw as corruption in its ranks, said he’s “very proud” of what he and like-minded residents accomplished over the past five years.
“We got rid of many self-serving council people, several shady attorneys and a rogue mayor,” he said.
Olsen was elected councilman in November 2011 and sworn into office January 2012. From the start some questioned the veracity of his Libby residency and therefore his ability to serve on the City Council. Though at the time he rented a home at 703 Louisiana Ave., he occasionally stayed at his tree nursery at 33692 Highway 2, just south of Libby, and listed the business as his mailing address.
The city didn’t challenge Olsen’s residency, however, until 2013 when he was running for mayor against incumbent Doug Roll. In a memo dated Oct. 18 that year, the Nov. 5 election nearing, Libby City Attorney James Reintsma wrote “Mr. Olsen is adamant that he maintains a residence in the city, in spite of substantial circumstantial evidence to the contrary.”
Reintsma, quoting transcripts from Olsen’s Oct. 3 testimony during a child-custody hearing, wrote that Olsen had told the court his residence was at the address of his tree nursery, just outside Libby. For the purpose of serving on the City Council, Olsen had maintained he lived at 703 Louisiana Ave., which is in city limits.
“My mailing address is at my business,” Olsen said at the time. “When (the clerk) asked me for my address, I asked her if she wanted my residence or my mailing address. She said she wanted my mailing address.”
Reintsma pressed on, initiating legal proceedings on Oct. 24, just 12 days before the election, which threatened to delay the counting of mayoral ballots unless Olsen’s residency be declared in court by a judge. Reintsma withdrew his request six days later, stating that the legal proceedings would continue after the election.
Olsen lost to Roll by only 13 votes — a consequence, Olsen asserted at the time, of Reintsma’s actions.
The timing of Reintsma’s stated intentions so close to the election put in motion a series of events including a counterclaim Olsen filed against the city after he tried and failed to get it to pay for his legal fees in defending against Reintsma’s charges; allegations of election fraud first raised November 2013 in a letter by former City Councilman D.C. Orr and then the following September in a complaint by former City Council candidate Arlen Magill, both to the Commissioner of Political Practices; and a draft petition to recall Roll.
Olsen settled with the city in November 2014 for $49,500 of what he said at the time was a $67,000 legal bill.
In May 2015, Jonathan Motl, Commissioner of Political Practices, in response to Magill’s complaint ruled that the City of Libby, former City Attorney James Reintsma (his contract ended December 2014), Mayor Doug Roll and five then-current and former members of the Libby City Council had violated Montana campaign finance laws and could face both criminal and civil prosecution, fines or potentially even removal from public office.
In April 2016, the draft petition to recall Roll began circulating to collect signatures; a judge nixed the effort in September, yet Roll nonetheless resigned soon after.
Olsen, long critical of Roll, in March 2016 even offered to resign if Roll would join him.
“We have to move Libby forward,” Olsen said at the time before a standing-room-only crowd at Libby City Hall. “We’re stagnant, nothing is getting done. Some people say it’s you (Roll). Some people say it’s me … The best thing for Libby to move forward is we both resign our seats, right now, tonight.”
Olsen also invited council members Barb Desch and Peggy Williams, also named in Motl’s complaint, to join him and Roll in resigning. None of them took Olsen up on the offer.
Litigation in Motl’s complaint is still pending, a clerk in his office said Wednesday. In addition to Reintsma, Roll, Desch and Williams, the complaint names Bill Bischoff, Vicky Lawrence and Robin Benson. Williams is the only person named in the complaint who remains on the city council; Robin Benson gave up her seat in late 2014 when elected to become the city’s clerk and recorder.
That Motl’s complaint hasn’t yet been settled, Olsen said, is his only disappointment of the five years he served as councilman.
Olsen’s assessment of the City Council he’s leaving is that “we got a damn good mayor (in Brent Teske), we got a damn good attorney (in Dean Chisholm) and for the most part ... I’m only going to say we got two good council members.” He said he was unhappy the city council voted April 25 to replace Campbell with Gary Armstrong instead of Arlen Magill, whom Olsen nominated.
Councilwoman Kristin Smith said the seat left open by Olsen’s departure represents “a whole new chapter” for the City Council.
“The council is really looking to create an environment free of hostility and a culture of civility,” she said. “There’s a lot of optimism and hope.”
Olsen doesn’t know if he’ll return to public service — “I seriously don’t believe I will,” he said — but suggested he might “if I see corruption starting again.”