Public hearing set for animal ordinance, CDBG funds approved

Moving Great Falls’ first park district forward wasn’t the only thing the City Commission accomplished during their Tuesday night meeting.

In approving the Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, commissioners completed what has been an especially contentious process this year.

Staff broke the actions into three separate motions since at least one commissioner needed to recuse herself from the vote on one of the matters specifically, but that way commissioners could still participate in the other actions if they so chose, said Craig Raymond, city planning director.

Houck did not vote on any of the three motions pertaining to CDBG funding and the portion including public facilities passed 2-1 with Burow dissenting.

Commissioner Bill Bronson was absent. He was in Butte working with a legislatively created looking at tax increment financing districts, according to Mayor Bob Kelly.

Conflict of interest concerns plague this year’s CDBG allocation decisions

For years, city staff have had concerns with the process and the potential for conflicts of interest since many members of the Community Development Council, the commission-appointed group that makes funding recommendations, are employees of the nonprofits that apply for the funding.

This year, the issue came to a head when the chair of the CDC failed to disclose her conflicts of interest with Paris Gibson Square and gave their organization a low score. The CDC did not initially recommend funding for PGS.

Commissioner Tracy Houck, also director of PGS, then complained to city staff about the lack of funding for PGS, which paired with a procedural error in the CDC meeting, prompted the city attorney to direct the CDC to redo the portion of the process pertaining to public facilities. The procedural error was allowing a non-board member to speak during board discussion.

The non-board member was Commissioner Fred Burow.

Feb. 23 meeting of the Community Development Council when Paris Gibson Square was discussed.

City staff alerted HUD to the issue and their attempts to rectify the situation and HUD was satisfied with their efforts. City Manager Greg Doyon and City Attorney Sara Sexe along with Mayor Bob Kelly met with Houck to discuss the inappropriateness of her initial attempt to change the outcome of the funding recommendations.

Houck did not provide responses to questions from The Electric.

In the redo of the public facilities portion of CDBG funding recommendations, during which the chair recused herself, the council recommended $27,927 for PGS.

In that redo, the council also recommended funding for other organizations that had originally been denied. Quality of Life Concepts was initially denied but in the new recommendations was slated for $20,877. The YWCA’s recommended allocation went up slightly. But that also meant funding for other applications went down. The Center for Mental Health was reduced from $20,000 to $10,000 and funding for the city Public Works department for a grant program providing assistance to low income homeowners to remove and replace hazardous sidewalks within the city limits and replacement of existing intersections with ADA accessible ramps was reduced from $65,297 to $29,177.

Two people spoke during the commission meeting to express their concern over Houck’s action and Burow said, “I still have heartburn about this.”

Commissioner Bob Jones said the conflict of interest issue should be reviewed and addressed but that the funding recommendations needed to be approved to keep within HUD’s timelines.

Mayor Kelly said, “mistakes were made. We will learn from those mistakes.”

He said the city will make revisions to the process to prevent any similar problems and Sexe has recommended that the commission develop and adopt a policy concerning conflict of interest disclosers.

Animal Ordinance

Commissioners voted to set a public hearing for June 20 on the proposal to update the city’s animal ordinance.

Several people spoke on the bee portion, which will continue to allow bees in the city, provided an adjacent resident doesn’t have a medically documented bee allergy.

City proposing changes to animal ordinance

The code currently and will continue to require permits for bee hives in the city. There are numerous bee keepers in the city limits, but animal shelter staff said there have been zero permits issued yet this year.

An Air Force wife said her family bought a house in Great Falls hoping to have chickens and were saddened to learn they are prohibited in the city limits.

Erika Park said she’s a gardener and asked the commission to consider allowing chickens while updating the ordinance.

Her son, Christopher, is 11 and asked the commission to allow him chickens.

“Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it wants to be my pet,” he said.

The city is currently awaiting a decision from district court regarding a complaint filed against the city by a couple who have been cited multiple times for harboring chickens at their home in the city limits. The couple alleges that the city’s chicken ban is illegal and the city is unlikely to consider changes to the ordinance while the litigation is pending. The city requested summary judgment in December, but have not yet received an update.

The public hearing is set for June 20 and after the hearing is closed, they are expected to vote on updating the animal ordinance.