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File removed from Road Department

By Michael Howell

Having heard some rumors about the resolution of a road dispute up Eight Mile Road and Woodchuck involving the developers of the Saddle Hill subdivision, a Bitterroot Star reporter went by the Ravalli County Road Department, located on Fairgrounds Road, on Friday, October 7, 2011 to examine the file on the project. He was informed by Road and Bridge Department Supervisor David Ohnstad that the file was not available.

Ohnstad said that the file had been removed from his department the previous day. He said that County Commissioner Ron Stoltz and Human Resource Director Robert Jenni had come to the Road Department for a union negotiation meeting. While there, he said, they asked for the 8 Mile Road-Woodchuck file. Ohnstad said that he offered to copy the entire file for them, but was told that they needed the file right away and would make copies of the file themselves and return those copies to him. Ohnstad said the file might be found at the county attorney’s office. He was not sure why the file was taken, but that it was needed for some sort of review that the commissioners were conducting on the Road Department’s performance.

Human Resource Director Robert Jenni, when asked whether he and Stoltz had removed the file, said that he had not. Asked who did, he said, “Commissioner Stoltz.” Asked why the file was removed from the department when the Road Supervisor had offered to make copies, Jenni said that he had not heard the offer to make copies. He said the reason the commissioners wanted to examine the files was that they were involved in an intensive review of Road Department practices. He said there is some concern on the part of the commissioners that the county is not keeping up with necessary road improvements countywide and that the road system may be deteriorating.

Commissioner Stoltz told the Bitterroot Star that he had removed the file from the Road Department to make copies. He said that the file was taken to the County Attorney’s office “because there is confidential information in the file, so we decided the copying should be done in a safe place.”

Lee Tickell of RC Watchdog, an on-line news organization, did view the file at the county attorney’s office. Tickell asked for and received a copy of the entire file. It’s available for viewing on the rcwatchdog.org website.

Aldo and Nikki Sardot, developers of the Saddle Hills Subdivision up Eight Mile, sued the county in 2007 over issues with the road leading to their subdivision. The Sardots were asking the county to do some road work on Eightmile Road and Woodchuck which would have included several items, such as placing of culverts, as well as the paving of the road.

That lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice by District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton in 2009. According to that settlement the county was only going to pave the road and was not required to do the extensive work being asked of them by the Sardots.

Then in April of 2011 the Sardots sent a letter to the county asking the county to do some of those same improvements. Road and Bridge Department Supervisor David Ohnstad wrote back declining to do the requested work and stating that the pavement project would proceed as described in the court settlement.

The Sardots had an attorney write the county on their behalf and as a result County Attorney Bill Fulbright sent a memo to the commissioners suggesting they meet with the Sardots.

The county placed the matter on their agenda for August 18, 2011 as “Dispute over road work on Eight Mile,” and again on August 26 and 29 stating “On site visit 8 Mile Road and Woodchuck”.

Minutes of the August 29 meeting show that the Commissioners decided to spend an estimated $46,780 to do the work being requested by the Sardots.

Ohnstad said that in his opinion the county had no obligation to do that work. He said that issue had been clearly decided in the judge’s dismissal of the case and the settlement described the extent of the paving project that was required to be done.

Based on their visit to the site, however, the Commissioners decided that the request for road improvements was legitimate and should be done.

In the minutes of the meeting it states that Ohnstad had presented the Board with an estimate of the cost “to fix a portion of the road detailed within a settlement agreement. Due to poor design, the road will now need culverts, patching and a ditch lining. The estimate is $46,780. The question is where the funding would come from. Commissioner Stoltz expressed his concern with the lack of an original drainage plan for the road. Commissioner Kanenwisher noted for the record the plaintiffs in this settlement made significant concessions and the road should have been done correctly. Commissioner Foss requested the past be forgotten and with moving forward all roads for the County must be built to reflect county standards and not lowest cost.” After some discussion it was determined the funds would come out of the regular operating costs with final cost to be transferred from Secure Rural School funds.

Ohnstad was ordered to make the improvements as requested and the work has been done.

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