Missoula City Council grants mayor temporary authority to approve contracts

With a vote of caution, the Missoula City Council on Monday unanimously agreed to grant the mayor wider powers to authorize contracts and agreements above a certain dollar amount, so long as they were previously budgeted.

The move saw no dissent among council members, who are working to expedite city business but limit exposure as the COVID-19 pandemic brings other functions to a standstill.

“It’s very important that we have continuity of government and government business,” said council member Jordan Hess. “This is a very reasonable approach that still provides transparency to the public. It’s a good solution, given the challenging time we find ourselves in.”

Monday night’s meeting, the first since the pandemic surfaced in Montana and health officials closed a number of businesses, saw just seven council members in attendance. It was just enough for a quorum.

Seating in City Council chambers has been greatly reduced to maintain social distancing, and several council members and city officials, including the city attorney, didn’t attend Monday’s meeting due to health concerns.

Add it up and conducting normal city business over the coming weeks could be challenging as most community members isolate and government offices forgo face-to-face interactions.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to limit time in this chamber as we attempt social distancing and all the other measures were trying to take,” said Mayor John Engen. “Allowing me to approve contracts above the current cap, which is $25,000, means administratively we can shorten our time in this room and in many cases, limit the number of committee meetings and time staff needs to spend in here.”

The resolution allows the mayor to execute contracts greater than $25,000 that have already been approved and budgeted by the City Council. The contracts and easements fall within the normal course of business and would still be viewed by members of the council.

The resolution expires at the end of April.

“I’m actually hoping it won’t need to go that long,” said Engen. “We’ll understand our processes better in the coming days. In the meantime, it should save us some time, temper risk and make us a littler more efficient.”

Several council members reluctantly agreed, saying the vote could be seen by some as council relinquishing its role as a check on the administration.

But at the same time, they noted, governments across the country were working to align their functions with the new reality, and the nuances of Monday’s resolution doesn’t diminish their role.

“I’m very uncomfortable with this,” said council member Sandra Vasecka. “But I’m going to show a leap of faith and support this.”

Council member Jesse Ramos worked with Engen to craft a resolution he could support. He praised the mayor’s leadership on Monday and defended his support for the measure.

“This is something that hits home to me, and a lot of people might misinterpret this and see it as us giving up authority to the mayor and abandoning our specific duty,” said Ramos. “All of these items have already been budgeted for, voted upon and approved by the city council. There’s nothing new that he’s going to spring up on it. To me, this is something that just makes sense. City Council is not abandoning any of its duties. These are desperate times.”

To maintain transparency, members of council and the public will still be able to monitor the contracts being approved under the resolution. The City Clerk will provide a weekly report to the council before each Monday night meeting.

“A bigger issue is also getting these contracts out the door so we’re lining up business for the summer so we can keep people employed,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It’s really important to keep that wheel turning, because a lot of jobs aren’t going to be around this summer. This will keep that pace up and we won’t miss a beat.”