Local Govt Lacks Transparency And Accountability
For multiple years citizens have been seeking transparency and accountability. Multiple counties across the state of Montana have raised concerns including voter fraud and other actions by officials that allege official misconduct.
The Montana Constitution under Article II Sections 8 and 9 provide for the people to have the right to participate and the right to know. Montana law goes one step further and protects the rights of the people to participate in government actions before decisions are made.
In 2012, fraud and embezzlement of thousands of dollars of tax payer funds was discovered in Broadwater County. Citizens brought forward a mountain of evidence of wrong doing to the county commission meeting. The citizens expected due process would prevail on behalf of the people. Instead, responsible elected officials ran for cover.
Montana Department of Emergency Services (MDES) at the same time, was engaged in legal action at the state level for misappropriation of federal funds, discrimination and wrongful discharge of Montana State employees.
Then-Governor Brian Schweitzer, as well as other high level officials, were under scrutiny. Conflict of interest and wrongful discharge actions were brought before the courts but the court system was overwhelmed by political and judicial influence.
In 2013, Broadwater County DES Coordinator Bill Fleiner was put on administrative leave. As an official of the County DES department Mr. Bill Fleiner also owned a company called Paradigm Communications and Preparedness Solutions LLC. Mr. Fleiner denied responsibility of misappropriation of funds and claimed that the commissioners are responsible for all authorized expenditures.
Then-County Finance officer Natalie Wenzel was fired by the commissioners in an effort to push culpability away from elected officials. In 2016, a federal investigation into the matter brought forward an indictment in federal court. The citizens of Broadwater County continued to push for accountability of elected officials. For personal reasons, Mrs. Wenzel decided not to move forward with civil action against the county for wrongful discharge and official misconduct.
The citizens of Broadwater County finally got partial relief when Mr. Bill Fleiner was convicted of felony fraud. Mr. Fleiner entered a plea agreement that made him responsible for restitution of the funds stolen from the people without serving jail time. The court declined to bring any further action against other culpable officials.
Over the past 6 years, County Commissioner Franklyn Slifka worked to maintain transparency but was met with fierce opposition from the other 2 commissioners. Under the form of government adopted by the voters, Commissioner Slifka found the refusal to allow him to equally participate in all government actions violated his rights. In 2013 Mr. Slifka filed a lawsuit against the other two commissioners in district court. The judge in the case ruled on behalf of Commissioner Slifka in 2014 claiming the other two commissioners violated open meeting laws.
Commissioner Laura Obert continued to deny any wrong doing and as chairwoman of the county commission continued to receive citizen complaints for open meeting violations.
The alleged violations by Broadwater County Commission also reached the desk of the Montana Attorney General. An investigation lingered and eventually lead to a plea agreement with Commissioner Obert. Commissioner Obert was advised that conflicts of interest were valid and wrongful allocation of funds was improper. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox demanded Commissioner Obert make restitution and recommended disclosure acknowledgement regarding ongoing conflict of interest complaints.
Multiple complaints have been filed with current Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson. Citizen complaints on government actions are brought forward under Title II of Montana law. Some of these complaints have been awaiting a legal response going back over 2 years. Due to statutory rules of conduct and conflict issues under the Montana Bar Association, Mr. Swanson has been unable to move the complaints forward.
Sheriff Wynn Meehan also mounted a legal challenge against the commission but again was met with regulatory and judicial hurdles that is preventing judicial relief on behalf of the citizens of Broadwater County. Sheriff Meehan also openly challenged the commission in an open commission meeting.
Most recently, the Broadwater County Commission is facing multiple legal challenges including the wrongful discharge of the County Sanitarian Julie Lethert. Additionally, the county is facing a legal challenge that includes open meeting law violations and unfair labor practices by the union representing the public safety department.
Last week, citizens brought forward concerns about closed door meetings and the lack of transparency in county actions. Nikki Willoughby openly addressed many of the actions by the commission in a hearing where the Broadwater County Commission is bringing forward an increase in taxes. Mrs. Willoughby pointed out the lack of transparency and accountability available to the public to openly participate as provided for under law.
The local newspaper, the Broadwater Reporter, has openly worked to keep the citizens informed. In recent weeks the county commissioners changed its open meeting policy. The change in policy provides for a change in public notification deadlines. The county commissioners have moved all official information to a web site managed by the local development corporation.
The local paper being the legal publication for official county business has rearranged the publishing date to accommodate the change. Agenda clarity and public participation notices continue to be problematic for the Broadwater Reporter to provide full accurate information in advance of the commission actions.
In other counties across Montana, and the west, this problem is not new. With elected officials at all levels of government being asked by the people to be transparent and accountable the debate will continue. The Montana Legislature is looking at changing some laws to facilitate the needed changes in statute, but is being met by opposition to full transparency.
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