By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Hill County Commission voted Thursday to pursue mediation with the city of Havre to resolve a standoff over which entity should provide enhanced-911 dispatching in Hill County.
The commissioners assigned Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson to work with the city to iron out details about the mediation, including whether it should be binding.
The commissioners also tabled a request from Mayor Bob Rice to give the city half of $300,000 collected from telephone customers in Hill County to pay for e-911.
"I can't feel I can legitimately go forward with this at this time," Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said.
The county commissioners asked Rice, who attended Thursday's commission meeting, if the city would be willing to come to the table.
"This city has been trying to negotiate this from Day One," Rice said.
He said City Council President Rick Pierson is not willing to allow a third party to make the decision but that he's uncertain how other council members would vote.
The city and county have been arguing for years over where to locate an e-911 dispatch center when the service, which allows dispatchers to see the location of a caller, becomes available. The state is working on providing the service across Montana within the year.
In 2002, a joint city-county e-911 committee voted to put a primary dispatch location at the Havre Police Department, and a secondary one in the Hill County Detention Center. Last year, the committee reconsidered that decision - citing costs - and in January voted to make the detention center the primary e-911 dispatch center. City officials abruptly left during the vote.
Since that time, the city and county have each developed separate e-911 plans and submitted them to the state for review.
The commissioners and some Havre City Council members have said they believe two dispatch centers would be a waste of money.
"I don't think there's anyone in this room or in this county that thinks we should have two 911 centers," Commissioner Mike Anderson, a former Havre firefighter, said Thursday. "All I think is we should sit down one more time."
Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said he thinks there's too little time and too much tension now to compromise.
"Rub two pieces of sandpaper together and suddenly the grit is gone," he said. "We can't bring the two together right now. There's too much friction."
If the parties go to mediation, the city and county would miss out being among the first in the state to get e-911 service, Barthel added.
"We're under a time line," Barthel told the commissioners before their vote. "... I would hate to see something like mediation or arbitration drag on and on and this county get moved to the back of the line. Right now we're at the front of the line. ... Potentially, that service could save a life."
All who spoke Thursday agreed the situation has become emotional.
"A lot of discussion ends up being not discussion. Emotion gets in there," said Commissioner Kathy Bessette, speaking in favor of having an outside party mediate.
Later, Barthel agreed that the issue is emotional. "This has become emotional for myself, for (fire) Chief (Dave) Sheppard, for (city public works director) Mr. (Dave) Peterson, because the city is all about public service. That's a passion."
Bessette said dispatch is not the only issue dividing the city and county, and that mediation might help other areas of the relationship.
"I think it goes even further than e-911," she said. "I think we could air out a lot of issues. ... I think there needs to be some mending or healing or something. I think it goes way deeper than e-911."
Pierson, who did not attend Thursday's meeting, said later Thursday, "As a duly elected official, I don't think that I have the authority to waive my constituents' rights and have a third party come in and make a decision when they elected me to make decisions for them."
"I don't know why we cannot agree amongst ourselves on the proper way to do this without bringing in a third party," he added.