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Sheriff tells commissioners to back off

By Michael Howell

Following a meeting with the Ravalli County Commissioners on Monday, October 3, concerning the closure of the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) and the need to provide transportation of juveniles to Missoula for detention, Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman sent the commissioners an e-mail expressing his disappointment in the process that led to the closure of the JDC. He also criticized the commissioners’ handling of the entire county budget process, and rejected, in no uncertain terms, an offer made by Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher for the Board of Commissioners to provide a “Juvenile Transportation Coordinator,” under the board’s employment, to handle detention and transportation of juveniles.

At that Monday’s meeting, Kanenwisher criticized the Sheriff’s Office for not responding to the suggestion of the Commissioners providing a transport “coordinator.” Sheriff Hoffman states in his e-mail that his “failure” to respond was deliberate.

“My staff and I did review the proposal and found it not only lacking, but self-serving and far outside the scope of authority of the board. In short, I had no intention of dignifying it with a formal response,” wrote Hoffman.

Hoffman claims that the proposal to institute a position of ‘Juvenile Transportation Coordinator’ who is directly responsible to the Commissioners indicated the board’s intention of controlling who got incarcerated and who did not.

“It was not within your scope of authority to make the decisions regarding who we incarcerated when the JDC was open. It most certainly is not within your authority to do so now that you have made the decision to close it. It shocks the conscience that you would go to such great, political lengths to ensure that your decision is not proven folly,” Hoffman wrote.

Even more shocking, according to Hoffman, was Commissioner Kanenwisher’s allegation, which he claims Kanenwisher made before witnesses a few weeks prior, that the Sheriff’s Office was “arresting and confining juveniles to make a point.” Hoffman claims that Kanenwisher re-iterated the allegation when asked to clarify.

“In making that accusation, the board is telling us that you believe that people who long ago earned the public trust, would stoop to removing someone’s freedom and violating our sworn oaths, discarding the Constitution of the United States and the State of Montana, strictly for the purpose of making you look bad. That ridiculous accusation has no basis in fact and is completely unfounded, illustrating incredible ignorance of our system on your part. Further, in my opinion, your proposal, while ostensibly to save money, was in fact an attempt by the board to usurp the roles of the District Court Judge and Sheriff, whether you realize it or not, by appointing yourselves to be both, check and balance in these matters, which, again, far exceeds the authority of the board,” wrote Hoffman.

“As an example,” the Sheriff writes, “the board wishes to advise us when we may no longer incarcerate a juvenile presumably due to a budget shortfall. It then logically follows that at some point you might believe you have the authority to instruct us as to which adult violators we are allowed to incarcerate, or which 9-1-1 emergency calls or coroner calls to answer, for budgetary reasons,” writes Hoffman. He rejects the idea as being in violation of state law and an infringement on his elected duties to provide public safety.

Hoffman goes on to criticize the commissioners’ entire budget process for its lack of transparency.

“The only advice you solicited was with regard to the JDC. You then disregarded the advice you were given by a host of authorities on this subject, choosing instead to rely on your own ‘informal’ number crunching, without respect for any other community concerns,” he wrote. He said it was a little late to be asking department heads for help now.

“The process is important and the board’s chosen process has only succeeded in fomenting hostile resentment from nearly every office and department in county government,” he wrote.

Hoffman concludes, “It is my opinion that the board’s actions this year have recklessly disregarded the basic functions of local government and diminished our ability to serve the people of Ravalli County. While some members of our community might applaud these actions from a fiscal standpoint, and commend the board for making the ‘hard decisions,’ I submit that the board has made the easiest, most unimaginative, and most short-sighted decisions it could have. In reality, the board has left the hard decisions to those of us who are actually responsible for providing tangible services to the community. Our population is larger than it has ever been, our taxes are not going down, demand for services are not significantly reduced, yet our ability to provide fundamental services continues to diminish. Every citizen in this county should be asking, what is the purpose of local government? The board of county commissioners should ponder that question hardest of all.”

Commissioner Kanenwisher had a different take on every issue and responded to the Sheriff’s e-mail with one of his own, stating that closure of the JDC was discussed at several meetings.

“We simply could not have been more open or more inclusive in this process. I flatly reject any accusation which states otherwise because it is not true,” Kanenwisher wrote back. “We offered to allow your office to drive the transition process and asked for suggestions and proposals. None were offered, nor have there been since.”

Kanenwisher called his first meeting with the Sheriff “a shameful display of unprofessionalism.” He states that the offer of a “coordinator” to receive and transport youth when the Sheriff’s office couldn’t “was met with raw hostility.” He denies ever asserting that it was within the board’s authority to dictate who was or was not incarcerated. He claims to have explicitly stated the opposite. He did admit to being wrong about the increase in the number of youth being detained.

“I’m happy to stand corrected,” he said. But he refuses to apologize for asking the question. He states that he made no public accusations or allegations and that his remarks were made in private to a state official.

“In private I proposed the possibility and my concern that the increase in youth may be in response to our closing of the JDC, but hoped that was not the case,” he wrote to Hoffman. He called it a “valid question.”

“And truthfully that is to the root of the problem. It is my belief that oftentimes individuals tend toward feeling that they are above questions. But I won’t be bullied, harassed or deterred from asking them,” wrote Kanenwisher.

Kanenwisher concludes by stating that he agrees there is a very poor atmosphere among many Ravalli County Departments” and says he regrets that. He urges Hoffman to get involved and help develop a policy for transporting juveniles.

Hoffman said in a telephone call from the Bitterroot Star verifying the authenticity of the e-mails that in his opinion Kanenwisher was a bully.

 

Following is the complete text of both emails.

 

Ravalli County Board of County Commissioners,
In reference to your comments during Monday morning’s meeting, regarding the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC), I wanted to make a couple of clarifications, but did not feel that that meeting was the place or the time.
You hold the office of county commissioner, and at some point, you will have to take responsibility, publicly, for some of your comments and conclusions, particularly when interacting with other elected officials. Specifically, I would like to address the proposal you brought to me and the subsequent conversation which took place two weeks ago. Monday morning the board expressed frustration that I had not gotten back in touch with you regarding that matter. My “failure” to respond to your proposal was deliberate. My staff and I did review the proposal and found it not only lacking, but self-serving and far outside the scope of authority of the board. In short, I had no intention of dignifying it with a formal response.
First of all, it is not my responsibility to solve a problem that the board created. Your proposal to institute the position of “Juvenile Transport Coordinator,” someone who answers to the county commissioners alone, clearly indicated your intention that the board should have control regarding who is incarcerated and who is not. It was your clear and stated intention to have a “go between” or a “check and balance” in an area where you have no business interjecting yourselves. It was not within your scope of authority to make the decisions regarding who we incarcerated when the JDC was open. It most certainly is not within your authority to do so now that you have made the decision to close it. It shocks the conscience that you would go to such great, political lengths to ensure that your decision is not proven folly.
Even more shocking, in a meeting with Commissioner Kanenwisher two weeks ago, he made an allegation that we and officers of the 21st Judicial District have been arresting and confining juveniles to make a political point, an allegation he made in front of Undersheriff Perry Johnson and Patrol Lt. Steve Holton. I asked for clarification and he reiterated that this is what he believed. In making that accusation, the board is telling us that you believe that people who long ago earned the public trust, would stoop to removing someone’s freedom and violating our sworn oaths, discarding the Constitution of the United States and the State of Montana, strictly for the purpose of making you look bad. That ridiculous accusation has no basis in fact and, is completely unfounded, illustrating incredible ignorance of our system on your part. Further, in my opinion, your proposal, while ostensibly to save money, was in fact an attempt by the board to usurp the roles of District Court Judge and Sheriff, whether you realize it or not, by appointing yourselves to be both, check and balance in these matters, which, again, far exceeds the authority of the board.
I do not question the board’s authority to make budgetary decisions for all county offices and departments, within state law. It is my view that the board of county commissioners has taken on a micro-managerial role and is suffering from “mission creep,” a condition which has caused you to believe that it is your job to manage the entire county, outside of the budget, despite the existence of other elected officials and statutory guidelines. However, nothing in state law gives you the authority to supervise or interject yourself into the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. Let me give you an example: you wish to advise us when we may no longer incarcerate a juvenile. This presumably would happen as a result of a budget shortfall. It then logically follows that at some point you might believe you have the authority to instruct us as to which adult violators we are allowed to incarcerate, or which 9-1-1 emergency calls or coroner calls to answer, for budgetary reasons. However, that is not the case. That job, by state law, is a function of the elected sheriff.
During my time in office, I have yet to see a less transparent process regarding the board’s budget decisions than what I witnessed this year. You, the board, carried out your budget deliberations with little or no input from your office-holding elected peers, your own department heads, and the public at large. The only advice you solicited was with regard to the JDC. You then disregarded the advice you were given by a host of authorities on this subject, choosing instead to rely on your own “informal” number crunching, without respect to any other community issues or concerns. The board has been quoted as saying basically that. Then, yesterday, the board sends a county-wide email soliciting help from us. I must ask, Why now? Where was that solicitation when your original deliberations began? Now, at this juncture, most department heads and elected officials will be fearful to respond and fearful to not respond. Concerning most issues, it matters less what you do and more how you do it. The process is important and, the board’s chosen process has only succeeded in fomenting hostile resentment from nearly every office and department in county government. Sadly, you, the board, missed a golden opportunity to take a team-building approach during “your difficult budget deliberations,” choosing instead to further your own political and philosophical agendas in a carefully constructed vacuum. Certainly, you have succeeded in uniting much of county government, but not in a positive way. It is my considered opinion that the board’s actions have also done no favors for the taxpayer. Rather, those actions have hurt this community in an unprecedented fashion.
In closing, the board has made its bed and now the entire community must lie in it. I will tell you now that I, for one, refuse to go back to a time in this county’s history when juvenile delinquents knew that there would be few consequences to their actions – that they would in most cases simply be cited and released, often to reoffend. Public safety is my first and foremost concern, in particular: the protection of life and property. It is my opinion that the board’s actions this year have recklessly disregarded the basic functions of local government and diminished our ability to serve the people of Ravalli County. While some members of our community might applaud these actions from a fiscal standpoint, and commend the board for making the “hard decisions,” I submit that the board has made the easiest, most unimaginative, and most short-sighted decisions it could have. In reality, the board has left the hard decisions to those of us who are actually responsible for providing tangible services to the community. Our population is larger than it has ever been, our taxes are not going down, demand for services are not significantly reduced, yet our ability to provide fundamental services continues to diminish. Every citizen in this county should be asking, what is the purpose of local government? The board of county commissioners should ponder that question hardest of all.
Sincerely,
Sheriff Chris Hoffman

From: Matt Kanenwisher Sent: Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Subject: RE: JDC Meeting/Budget Issues

Sheriff Hoffman,

In response to accusations that decisions were made in a vacuum, were not transparent, etc. You are fully aware that during the budget process several meetings were convened where the JDC was discussed. At every meeting I asked if there were costs we were not considering, we simply could not have been more open or more inclusive in this process. I flatly reject any accusation which states otherwise because it is untrue.

After the decision was made to close the JDC we convened an additional meeting where we offered to play whatever part the Courts or Sheriffs office would like us to play. We offered to propose solutions or to receive them. We offered to allow your office to drive the transition process and asked for suggestions and proposals. None were offered nor have there been since. That meeting in fact was a shameful display of unprofessionalism. In a subsequent meeting which you referred to, you shouted out me for some time and still offered no input. We proposed the idea of a “coordinator” to receive the youth and transport when it was not feasible for your department. This was met with raw hostility.

I have never, in any way, asserted that it was somehow within our authority to dictate who was and was not incarcerated. In fact I clearly stated it was not the within the Board’s authority and any statement to the contrary is simply untrue. I did note, however, that it seemed to me that our numbers were sharply higher. I checked these numbers and, in fact, in the first quarter of FY11 we had 35 youth while in the first quarter of FY12 we had 66. I called Robert Peak at the state office and explained we had no way to know if this was appropriate or not but, given the current climate in Ravalli County, I wanted to make sure someone with the appropriate expertise had a look. He reported to me that Youth Court’s numbers were actually lower than last year but that Youth Court may have, perhaps, over-utilized the facility and that he had discussed this at length with Youth Court. I am happy to stand corrected in terms of the apparent increase of youth relative to youth court. Your objection, then, is to the fact that I was willing to ask the question. For this I do not apologize and believe that it is well within the parameters of my office to ask such questions as they arise. Indeed, it is within any citizens ability and authority to do so.

My discussion with Robert Peak was very helpful and I am grateful for it. I do wonder if the numbers of detained youth I received are incorrect. The other obvious explanation may be that the increased youth are a result of increased arrests rather than increased probation violations. Mr. Peak was very clear as to which offenses were legally detainable, and which offenses most appropriately warrant detaining a youth. Again, I did not do this in a public forum or seek to disparage anyone’s office or performance. I did not “accuse” anyone of anything. In private I proposed the possibility and my concern that the increase in youth may be in response to our closing of the JDC, but hoped that was not the case. If the increase in numbers (almost double) are statistically insignificant then that will become apparent over time. But given the response I have received in many of the conversations over the last few months it is certainly a valid question. And truthfully that is to the root of the problem. It is my belief that often times individuals tend toward feeling that they are above questions. But I won’t be bullied, harassed, or deterred from asking them.

I agree that there is currently a very poor atmosphere among Ravalli County departments and I regret that. But the plain truth here is that I did everything within my ability to include everyone on the process and decision to close the facility. Furthermore, the Youth Court and Sheriff’s office have done very little to offer suggestions or input as to how this process should develop in the near future. I would hope that at this point, rather than rally the troops or continue intentional non-participation in discussions which will establish the process for detaining youth in Ravalli County, that all who are involved would put your minds together and establish a policy as to the process. We are happy to playas little or as great a part in that process as you like and have continuously offered our assistance and asked for direction.

For the record, we meet tomorrow at 3PM to discuss and possibly sign a contract with MCDF or RYO or both. We welcome anyone’s input at the meeting or via email.

Thanks,

Matt Kanenwisher

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