The Libby City Council spent about 45 minutes of its Feb. 5 meeting working on revisions to its rules of procedure, which include a new section on filling council vacancies.
In addition to including definitions and requirements established in state law, the proposed rules require that applicants be subject to and authorize a background check to be considered eligible.
The addition comes following the fallout from former council member Angel Ford’s failure to disclose a prior felony conviction — and the City Council not asking about her background — during the interview that preceded her unanimous appointment to the City Council on May 30, 2017.
Ford, who was elected by acclamation to the City Council on Sept. 5, 2017 after running unopposed, resigned Jan. 19, 2018 after The Western News reported two stories: one about how Ford’s explanation of a 2011 identity theft conviction had differed from official reports, and another about how Ford was fined in 2005 for mailing a fraudulent city council campaign postcard in Hoquiam, Washington.
Though some council members acknowledged at the Feb. 5 meeting that background checks are increasingly required of people applying for a variety of professional or volunteer positions, there were questions about how such checks should influence appointments and whether they should be required to begin with.
Council member Gary Beach hypothesized about an applicant with a 30-year-old conviction on a drug-related charge and wondered what would be the council’s criteria for eliminating someone from consideration based upon that or another crime.
Mayor Brent Teske said that the past crime would not disqualify someone for serving on the City Council.
“That was the confusion about (Ford’s) felonies,” he said. “Her felony convictions were adjudicated, she was done with them, she was paid off, she wasn’t on probation, and by state statute and by two articles in the state constitution she was not disqualified.”
Even though Ford’s conviction did not disqualify her, Teske said he didn’t know if the City Council would have appointed her had she disclosed it or had a background check revealed it.
“But at least we would have known that ahead of time,” he said. “We would have had that trust of council and public trust because everybody would have known.”
Council member Kristin Smith admitted to “some heartburn” about requiring a background check of potential appointees because someone who runs for election to the council cannot be held to the same standard.
“It’s the public’s job” to vet candidates, she said.
Smith also worried that the requirement would scare off interested and qualified applicants who are already hard to come by.
“Everybody’s flawed,” she said. “I just I don’t want it to be a knee jerk reaction to one incident.”
Smith suggested the City Council adopt a more thorough application process to vet applicants, causing Teske to wonder “how you can get a better vetting process” than requiring a background check.
At Smith’s request, Teske said he would look into how Missoula — whose rules of procedure he was using as a reference point for Libby’s — vets its appointee applicants.
The revisions to the City Council’s rules of procedure have been in the works since long before the Ford controversy, Council President Peggy Williams said Monday via email.
“The rewrite forces us to exam how we do things and provides a roadmap to our expected outcome,” she wrote. “Yes, recent events have influenced how we look at things, but recent events did not create the need for putting in writing a procedure that spells out, from notice to voting, how the remaining five council members will appoint a new council person.”
Williams noted at the Feb. 5 meeting the unlikelihood that the new procedures would be ready in time for interviewing people interested in filling the vacant seat.
Williams said in her email that “in the not so distant past” the City Council requested only a letter of interest of potential appointees.
“No specific information was requested and often none was given,” she wrote. “This worked when the applicants were known to serving council members, and mostly they were. When more unknown residents began applying for vacancies it became obvious that more information was needed. And now it has become obvious that more checkable information is needed.”
Council members also discussed creating a list of standard interview questions to pose to applicants in addition to other questions that might arise.