The anger was palpable in Kate Kolwicz's letter of resignation from the city Historic Preservation Commission last week. She acknowledged as much, writing that "as we are all aware, the past many months have been difficult and frustrating." The sources of frustration, Kolwicz wrote, included lack of training and a historic preservation officer, Leslie Schwab, who was "openly dismissive and contemptuous" of commission members. But Kolwicz, the third volunteer board member to resign over the city's handling of the Missoula Mercantile demolition, says she also wanted to offer constructive criticism as she bowed out. So, in addition to explaining the sources of her frustration, Kolwicz offered four suggestions toward fixing the broken system. Then she emailed her letter to the board
, thinking that was that.
Schwab wasn't about to give Kolwicz the last word. She fired off a string of rebuttal emails to her and other HPC members accusing Kolwicz of lying, disregarding legal advice and abusing staff "at your every convenience."
"Also," Schwab concluded,
"please stop flipping off the Mayor in public. It's childish."
Email from Historic Preservation Officer Leslie Schwab to commission members
Such is the state of affairs in the wake of last year's power struggle over the fate of the Merc.
That bitterness and mutual distrust has only intensified in recent months, spilling into open hostility between Schwab and HPC members during public meetings. Even as Kolwicz ran for the door, Schwab made sure it hit her on the way out.
"It's like the Cold War," says HPC member Scott Loken, who has served on the board for ten years. "There's no connection between our historic preservation officer and the commission."
The standoff has virtually paralyzed the commission. It has been unable to obtain a quorum for the last four months, leaving those members who do attend unable to take votes or even approve meeting minutes. City Council has yet to fill vacancies stretching back to March 2016. Remaining members, Loken says, "don't want to come."
As the staff liaison to the board and an employee of the city's Development Services division, Schwab was at the center of the Merc tug of war.
City Communications Director Ginny Merriam says the toll led Schwab to engage in the email exchange with Kolwicz—an exchange Merriam described as "never appropriate, nor is it professional or a best practice." No formal disciplinary action has been taken, Merriam says. Schwab did not respond to a request for comment.
photo by Amy Donovan
In wake of the contentious Merc decision, the relationship between the volunteer Historic Preservation Commission and Historic Preservation Officer Leslie Schwab has eroded to the point where Schwab accused one member of lying and "flipping off the Mayor" after she resigned from the commission.
On Monday, Schwab did email HPC members an apology for her "unprofessional" emails. "I have felt picked on, and I became defensive," she wrote. Kolwicz tells the Indy
that while she appreciates Schwab's apology, "I was disappointed that she did not specifically retract her false and libelous allegations towards me."
Schwab's emails also prompted councilwoman Emily Bentley to contact HPC members in an attempt to begin rebuilding trust. Bentley says City Council plans to revise its much-maligned historic preservation ordinance, reexamine the HPC membership structure and fill open seats once Merc litigation with Preserve Historic Missoula concludes.
What the city doesn't plan to do, Bentley says, is undermine the commission's authority.
"I feel like we could give them more support," she says.