Great Falls residents back fired clerk

GREAT FALLS -- The message from Julie Blackwell's supporters is simple: Give the fired Great Falls clerk her job back.

Since Friday, Blackwell's backers have been signing petitions that ask the Great Falls Town Council to rehire her. Blackwell was fired Sept. 25, a day after she accused four council members of holding an illegal meeting.

Jack Taylor, Maxine Wood, Earl Taylor and Toby Gladden -- the council members who voted to fire Blackwell -- are the same ones she confronted about an illegal meeting. No reason has been given publicly as to why Blackwell was fired.

After she was terminated, residents came together and developed a petition asking that she be rehired, said Sandra Kennington, who works for the Great Falls Insurance Agency at 804 Dearborn St.

At least two copies of the petition are collecting signatures in addition to the one at Great Falls Insurance. All the documents bear the same message:

"We the people of the Great Falls area strongly disagreed with the action of certain council members pertaining to the firing of Julie Blackwell," the petition states. "We request a special town meeting to review this decision. We request that she be rehired."

More than 200 people had signed the petitions as of Wednesday, Kennington said. If the town doesn't hold a special meeting before the regular scheduled meeting Oct. 15, Kennington said the petitions will be presented to the council then.

"Until someone can give me a valid reason why they fired Julie, then I will continue to support her in every way," Kennington said. "Everyone that comes in my office, the four words I hear the most is, 'I cannot believe this.' ... People are in shock."

Council member Wood said Wednesday that she knew about the petitions. When asked about the impact of the documents, she offered a brief statement:

"If I am presented with a petition with the valid signatures of the majority of the registered voters of Great Falls in favor of rehiring Miss Blackwell, I would certainly be remiss in my duties if I ignored their concerns," she said.

When asked if she would consider rehiring Blackwell if more than half the residents signed the petitions, Wood would not elaborate.

"I've already made my comment," she said.

Kennington said some of the people who signed the petitions don't live in the town. Blackwell also assisted people outside of the town's limits, she said.

"Julie is known by everybody," she said. "And she's helped everybody. So, everybody wants to be a part of it."

Gladden and the Taylor brothers could not be reached for comment.

Great Falls Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes, who voted against firing Blackwell, said he knew about the petitions.

"This is (the) people's right," he said. "They're really upset about it."

Starnes said he would have to seek legal advice before calling a special meeting about rehiring Blackwell.

When asked what he would do if such a meeting ever took place and he had the chance to bring Blackwell back, he said he would vote to rehire her.

Blackwell was employed by the town for 13 years and managed its records, including finances, since 2001. She was making just over $25,000 annually when she was fired.

The day before Blackwell was fired, she told council members Earl Taylor, Jack Taylor, Wood and Gladden that they were holding an illegal meeting after the four had gathered at Town Hall. State law prohibits public bodies from holding unannounced meetings, and a majority of council members gathered together constitutes a meeting.

Including the mayor, Great Falls' council has seven members.

According to a Great Falls police report, the four council members came to Town Hall and went inside a front room. When they asked Blackwell to join them, she told them they were in an illegal meeting, the report stated.

Since she was fired, Blackwell said her phone has been ringing constantly from supporters calling. When asked if she would consider returning to her old job, she was frank.

"Yeah, I want my job back," she said. "I just shouldn't have to start over."

Blackwell said she misses her job. In fact, after she was fired, she volunteered to go back for a few hours and explain some of her former tasks to another clerk. She wasn't paid for her services. Starnes said he allowed her to do it.

Many people have told Blackwell they're coming to the Oct. 15 council meeting to show their support, she said.

While she doesn't know exactly how many people will show up, she noted, "If they all come, the streets will be lined."