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Settlement agreement challenged in court

By Michael Howell

The Bitterroot Star newspaper and RC Watchdog, a local on-line news organization, have challenged the Ravalli County Commissioners’ settlement agreement with Deputy County 
Attorney Geoffrey Mahar. The Commissioners reached a settlement agreement on August 15, 2011 with Mahar over two human rights complaints he made against the county and County Attorney Bill Fulbright. The decision to settle was made following a closed door meeting that the petitioners believe was not properly noticed.

The total cost of the settlement agreement has been variously estimated at $180,000 to $250,000. The actual cost has not been published and involves a complex work arrangement, benefit package and retirement pay-off on top of a $10,000 payment to Mahar’s attorneys.

The separation agreement leaves Mahar as an employee of good standing with the county but he will work from his own office and not participate in the day-to-day business at the county attorney’s office. His contract for employment runs through May 31, 2013 and Mahar agrees that he has no expectation of further employment after that time.

The agenda for the meeting at which the decision was made simply stated “Personnel matter-Closed door may be invoked under MCA 2-3-203.” Petitioners state in their lawsuit, “This notice is grossly inadequate for a decision of such significant public interest and fails to give the proper public notice. Accordingly, the public had no opportunity for citizen participation in approving said settlement agreement.”

Petitioners claim that by making the decision without proper notice the county has violated Article II, Section 8 of the Montana Constitution which states that “the public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies’ final decision as may be provided by law.” They also claim a violation of Article II, Section 9, of the Montana Constitution which provides that “no person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Petitioners also claim a violation of Montana law (2-3-203 MCA) which provides that “all meetings of public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies of the state, or any political subdivision of the state or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, including the supreme court, must be open to the public.”

Petitioners are asking the District Court to void the settlement agreement.

“The decision to spend close to $200,000 of taxpayers’ money without proper allowance for public observation of, and participation in, the decision making process is an egregious violation of the constitution and law and needs to be addressed,” said Michael Howell, publisher of the Bitterroot Star. “No one likes going to court to get a resolution of issues that could be resolved otherwise. But the county commissioners never responded to our complaint about the issue nor did they re-schedule a meeting with proper notice, leaving us no option but to seek relief in the courts.”

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