City of Bozeman Plays Politics With Bond Election
Mr. Roger Koopman serves the people of Montana on the Public Service Commission. He lives in Bozeman and has served in the Montana Legislature. Having been involved in government for many years, Mr. Koopman has knowledge of election laws and the rights of the people.
Mr. Koopman saw a problem with the City of Bozeman and a how officials were engaged in a local bond issue before the voters. Chris J. Gallus, an attorney in Helena, took on the City of Bozeman on behalf of Mr. Koopman. The case claims that the city officials, in several ways, violated Montana’s election and ethics laws that forbid state and local government from directly engaging in political activity.
The requirement for public servants to remain neutral on how a $37 Million Dollar Bond would impact government operations was brought front and center. Montana law precludes the use of public funds and resources for the government to dictate a desired outcome and/or interfere in an election process reserved to the people.
Mr. Koopman claimed Bozeman officials engaged in a one-sided campaign to enhance a local bond issue in their favor. The city manager even went as far as claiming the issue was not as much about rising costs but about losing a legal battle with the taxpayers, which was a serious concern. The Commissioner of Political Practices disagreed with the claim filed by Mr. Koopman, giving deference to the City of Bozeman.
In a scramble for the city to maintain control, the issue went to the city board of ethics. This board is appointed by the very commissioners that are named as defendants in the case. The ethics board ruled on behalf of the city.
The case then went before the 18th Judicial District of Montana. The judge there sided with the previous decisions giving deference once again to the city.
Through multiple bureaucratic delays the case fell on deaf ears, including the judge that felt obligated to accept the Commissioner’s decision, as well as the ethics board’s decision. The heart of the issue here is clearly pointed out that due process was thwarted in the name of giving local government authorities deference when the law is in question.
The city claimed they prevailed in the challenge multiple times, but due to no formal proceedings where officials would be held accountable under oath, the due process rights of the citizens were denied, according to Mr. Koopman and his attorney.
We looked into the government defense of giving deference to government in matters where the citizens claim an error has been made. We learned that this case is only one of hundreds, or even thousands, of court cases where deference is given to the government entity involved.
In Auer v. Robbins the United States Supreme Court set a precedence in 1997 where deference is regularly given to government agencies. This has been questioned by several on the court by claiming the fairness doctrine does not enjoy equal footing. In fact, the court invited a challenge to the Auer decision. In 2018, that invitation was delivered and the court accepted the case.
Kisor v. Wilkie addresses this “government superiority” notion. If the court rules in this case as the Constitution provides, the City of Bozeman and many other local government officials will find nowhere to hide in who they truly represent. According to Mr. Gallus; “The City of Bozeman knew this, and didn’t want to take their chances in shifting the legal environment on an agency with an enforcement consistency…” The case was argued March 27, 2019 and a decision is pending.
“If we do not hold our local officials accountable for electioneering at taxpayer expense, free elections will become nothing more than a mockery and a sham. We alone will be to blame.” according to Mr. Koopman
Mr. Koopman declared that; “I’m beginning to think the term “public servant” has lost all its meaning at City Hall these days, among commissioners and city officials.” The officials expecting conclusion of the case provided a reasonable image to get Mr. Koopman to sign a legal settlement. Immediately after getting the settlement signed, the officials instantly went back to claiming the city did nothing wrong even though evidence was clearly on the table.
According to Mr. Koopman after a case settlement was signed, the city went on a media frenzy where the city manager claimed victory completely in contradiction of the written settlement they had just signed. Since the full accurate evidence was never allowed to come to the light of day before the system, the city was afforded an authoritative control over the case.
In a press release provided by Mr. Koopman, he outlined the foundation of the challenge. “If you want to know who prevailed, ask these simple questions. Who forced the City to provide more budgetary transparency? Mr. Koopman. Who made the City put a banner on their webpage so citizens could easily communicate their positions in a public forum? Koopman. Who, before now, had never paid a settlement after a complaint was dismissed? The City. Who wrote Koopman a check? The City. Whether you count that as four victories or just one, Koopman, not the City, ultimately prevailed.”
In Conclusion, Mr. Koopman stated that; “Government officials like ours need to realize that they do not sit on thrones, nor dwell in unapproachable light. And it is not unforgivable blasphemy to sometimes question what government does. Public servants understand this. Our city commissioners do not.”
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