Two years ago, Lew Barnett had high hopes for his stint as Stevensville mayor, such as moving on stalled improvement projects and bringing the city budget back into the black. That was before the bullying, he says, before the deceit. That was before city council president Pat Groninger.
"He wants to be the mayor," Barnett says of Groninger. "He was told, 'You're not the mayor, you're just a councilman.' He wouldn't control his emotions."
Barnett says he spent the bulk of his 20 months as mayor dealing with Groninger's "overpowering" personality and outlining the separation of municipal powers for him. "He likes to micro-manage," Barnett says. "I'd put him on a board and he'd be so disruptive that I had people wanting to quit."
On Aug. 23, Barnett quit, effective immediately.
"The last little straw was, after a meeting, he went in and approached a city employee screaming we couldn't hire someone," Barnett says. "He said he was going to call the city attorney. Enough was enough."
The allegations came as a surprise to Groninger, however. He says Barnett's accusations are "totally false," and counters with accusations of his own that "contracts were getting signed without council approval." He says he doesn't know why Barnett would single him out.
"I can't speak for anybody else, but the fact is I take this position very seriously, I respect all the citizens in this town and all the laws we have to abide by," Groninger says. "If I'm going to be the scapegoat on it, I guess so be it."
Barnett wasn't the only city official to cite political turbulence with Groninger. Councilwoman Desera Towle tendered her resignation Sept. 1, seconding Barnett's allegations. However, Towle's resignation was largely due to difficulties getting a job; she was thinking of moving to Spokane to find work, but she got a job days later, and city hall confirms she unofficially rescinded her resignation.
Groninger served as mayor for 18 months before running unopposed for his council seat in 2008. He says he resigned as mayor for personal reasons, although he faced a potential recall.
The council now has 30 days to elect an interim mayor to serve the remaining two years of Barnett's term.
Barnett, now 68, plans to simply "walk off into the sunset." But he says he wouldn't be surprised if Groninger steps up to fill his shoes. Asked if he would, Groninger merely said his "plate is full."