By Michael Howell
Last Tuesday close to fifty people gathered on the County Administration Building lawn in Hamilton to hold a Save-Our-Workers Rally. The rally was scheduled to protest the job cuts included in the FY 2012 County Budget. Close to 17 employees will lose their employment under the new budget.
Penny Gaddy-Rhodes, who helped plan the rally, said to the commissioners, “You’ve been quoted in the paper as saying that the job cuts are ‘certain’ even though the public review process is not completed.” She said that the many questions being asked by the public about the budget need to be answered. Some of those questions include questions about the settlement agreement with Deputy County Attorney Geoff Mahar.
“Why should our County Attorney’s incompetence and your desire to cover up this incompetence mean that so many of us have to lose our livelihoods,” Gaddy-Rhodes asked. She also wondered why the Commissioners accept $20,000 in mileage to drive back and forth to work when others are being put out of work.
“The budget process has been flawed from the beginning,” she said, “and we are demanding that you stop this ridiculous pretense of transparency and provide a budget process that will enable the public to clearly see where, why and how our money is being spent.”
The protesters entered the building and the commissioners accepted comments from them in the public comment session included in a meeting about the road shop.
Lee Tickell, who helped organize the rally that included members of the Democratic Party, Citizens for Responsible Government, and other local groups, said that he had submitted numerous questions to the county about the budget and their policies but has received no answers.
“None of that information has been provided and without that information there can be no meaningful participation in the public review of the budget,” said Tickell. He also complained that no hard copy of the budget had been made available at the commissioners’ counter as was promised. He also questioned the layoffs in the light of county policy that appears to require that all probationary employees will be laid off or have their pay reduced before reducing hours of regular employees. Tickell wonders why Planning Department Manager Terry Nelson was not laid off since he is still under probation.
Bill LaCroix of the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance echoed Tickell’s concerns. His organization, among others, is seeking release of the Human Rights complaints filed by Geoff Mahar against the County Attorney and the County. He said the commissioners agreed to a $250,000 settlement with Mahar “in a closed, secret meeting.”
In a letter to the Human Rights Bureau, LaCroix wrote, “We see this as a core open government issue and feel the public’s right to review the requested complaints is truly paramount in this case.”
LaCroix states that it is his understanding that almost all of the employees being laid off are women. He states that without more information it is not possible to determine if there has been a human rights violation in the “unprecedented firing of these women.”
According to Human Rights Bureau case manager Kathy Helland, Geoffrey Mahar submitted a Request for Withdrawal of Charge of Discrimination on August 21, 2011. The Bureau Chief approved the withdrawal of his cases on August 23, 2011 and they were closed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau on August 24, 2011.