By Michael Howell
Jeff Burrows was appointed by the Ravalli County Commissioners on Wednesday, July 11, to fill the commission seat for District 4 following the resignation of former Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher.
Kanenwisher, a Republican, resigned to pursue his career as a cardiac nurse in Salt Lake City, Utah after serving only one and a half years of a four-year term. As a result the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee submitted three names for consideration by the County Commissioners to fill the seat until it can be put on the ballot in November. The three candidates for appointment were Jeff Burrows, Clayton Dethlefsen and Bill Menager. The Republican Central Committee, besides selecting Burrows as one of the three replacement nominations, also selected Burrows to be the Republican candidate on the November ballot.
Prior to the appointment, Burrows was questioned extensively regarding his involvement in an internet website and blog that was of concern to the Sheriff’s Department.
Commission Chairman Suzy Foss started off the discussion last Wednesday by announcing that an anonymous caller had directed the commission to a blog page (BSOSCBlog.com) on the internet placed by Jim Farley and administered by Jeff Burrows. Foss said that the BSOSC was a group that initially started several years ago to teach people “how to do something about their water system, how to garden and make canned goods.” Foss said there was an introduction posted by Burrows in which he indicates he has been an active member of that organization “because he believes that if things get worse before they get better, it would be important.” There is an associated company, she said, called SOS General Store that sells survival gear.
Foss said that a year after the blog started, Jeff’s father-in-law Jim Farley, who does all the posts and handles the blog information, posted an item by Jason Hommel “that talked about second amendment rights and some concepts about the constitution and people’s interpretations and what may or may not be appropriate for people who don’t agree with those interpretations made by the government or whatever, and these issues have brought big concerns for the Sheriff’s Department.”
Commissioner J.R. Iman asked Burrows to talk about the situation.
Burrows said the group he once was active in stemmed from the local political group called Celebrating Conservatism before it broke up. He said that Celebrating Conservatism’s efforts had been split into two areas, one dealing with 2nd Amendment rights and the other a “survival preparedness group that worked on homesteading skills like canning, gardening and re-loading.” He said his father-in-law Jim Farley was asked to head up the survival preparedness group and kept it running even after Celebrating Conservatism fell apart. Burrows said that his job was merely to serve as technical administrator of the website, re-setting passwords and such. He said he also works for Farley on the on-line retail store selling survival preparedness goods. He said that Farley handled the information and postings on the BSOSC site.
Burrows denied having anything to do with the content of the postings and said that he had never seen the posting under question until shown a printed copy about an hour and a half before the meeting that morning. Burrows said that he is only a technical administrator of the blog site, but does a little bit more on the retail store site as far as helping Farley to acquire products. He said that Farley employed him to work on the store site but that he sometimes had him work on the blog site as well although they are totally separate operations. He said the blog site was “an informational, non-profit, site that generated no revenue.” He said he did not know Jason Hommel, the author of an article posted on the site and did not know what Farley does on the site in terms of postings.
Foss added that most of the information on the site is about “how to make good cheese, not necessarily social commentary.”
Burrows said that he did not know what was posted on the site because he didn’t read it very often.
Sheriff Chris Hoffman, who attended the meeting with Undersheriff Perry Johnson, said that what concerned him was the information that was brought to his attention the previous day, which was the postings by Hommel and Farley’s endorsement of it.
“I would just ask you the direct question,” said Hoffman, “Do you share the opinion, or do you believe that I and my deputies are operating outside the scope of our constitutional duties in any way?
Burrows said he had no reason to believe that.
“Do you hold the opinion that the prohibition in Montana against carrying weapons into courthouses, businesses that serve alcohol, schools or other government buildings is in violation of the 2nd amendment or that it is somehow unconstitutional?” asked Hoffman.
“I don’t want to interpret the constitution,” said Burrows. “I think we have to comply with the law and right now the law states you can’t carry a gun in those places.” He said there was a process for changing the law and it was in the legislature. “I don’t think it’s vigilantes running around trying to carry guns into courthouses illegally,” he said.
“So finally, do you agree or disagree that the constitution gives citizens the right to use deadly force against peace officers if they feel they are somehow acting under cover of law in violation of the constitution?” asked Hoffman.
Burrows said it came down to complying with the law.
“If the officer’s out there doing his job and he’s within the law, absolutely not. There should be no force against the officer at all,” said Burrows.
Undersheriff Perry Johnson took up the questioning and said what concerned him was that Burrows was claiming to be only the “technical administrator” of the site, when in fact he introduces himself as the technical administrator and an active member.
“So are you just a technical administrator? Or are you administrator and an active member?” he asked Burrows.
Burrows said that he was the technical administrator of the blog.
“I was involved more,” he said, “but I haven’t really been involved with the group for a while now, and that’s just basically personal choice.” He said he didn’t see anything wrong with the group, he just phased himself out. He said he was involved with the group Celebrating Conservatism when it was formed.
“I have put a couple blogs up, maybe ten,” he said, “but I am just the technical administrator. Doing upkeep and security,” he said.
Information downloaded from the site states that Burrows joined the blog on January 27, 2010 and made a total of 27 posts, the last being posted on July 10, 2012.
Johnson noted that the information shows that Burrows was an active member of the group when the posting under consideration was made.
Burrows said that the group he was a member of was different than the blog. He said the group met to learn about shoeing horses and gardening, while the blog was an international forum in which people get to say whatever they want. He suggested they ask Jim Farley if they wanted to know the details about the blog.
Johnson said the blog in question was titled “American cowards! Like me!” by Jason Hommel and that Farley appeared to have written an endorsement of the article and he quoted from Farley’s endorsement, “The thought of being cowardly is disgusting. Anyone who can truthfully reply that they are not a coward please reply so that we can arrange an opportunity to prove you are not.” Johnson said the focus of the article was that officers like Hoffman and himself were operating outside the law by prohibiting guns in the courthouse.
Johnson stated that there are two sets of laws here. He said the one law, passed by a government body like the county commission, prohibits carrying guns in the courthouse, but this article is saying that law is unconstitutional.
“So how do you reconcile that?” asked Johnson. “In fact it says it is their God given duty to keep and bear arms at every courthouse entrance.”
“This is somebody interpreting the constitution,” responded Burrows, “and I think that’s what we do when we make laws. We interpret. When it says ‘the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,’ how do you interpret that ‘shall not be infringed’?”
Johnson responded saying what really concerned him was that Farley was appealing to people on a worldwide forum to come to the Bitterroot to reply “so we can provide an opportunity for you to prove you are not (a coward).”
Commissioner Foss interrupted, asking Johnson if he was including Burrows in the “we,” saying she just wanted clarification.
Johnson said he did clarify that when he noted that when the blog was posted by Farley, Burrows claimed to be an active member of the group.
“Again we are back to two different things,” said Burrows. He said that the blog site was a public forum where anybody could place anything. He said he didn’t know what Farley meant by providing “an opportunity.” He suggested that they ask Farley.
Johnson said he was still concerned because Burrows was an active member at the time and a business associate of the man that was calling for a reply to prove they are not a coward.
“I carry a gun to work so I understand that I have a risk,” said Johnson, “but I don’t understand any member of this community appealing to anybody to come here to prove this stuff about carrying a gun in the courthouse. And I don’t want somebody to take an opportunity to shoot me or one of my officers or a Highway Patrolman or a commissioner because they need the opportunity to prove they are not a coward. I don’t get it.”
“I think you are interpreting this as an opportunity to commit violence,” said Burrows. “We are talking about the right to carry weapons versus going out and committing a crime. I don’t know what he means, honestly.”
Sheriff Hoffman interjected, saying that it is an endorsement of an article that clearly endorses the use of deadly force against an officer who is operating under cover of law and is in violation of the constitution up to and including walking into a court room with a loaded weapon. “An officer saying to him, ‘you can’t do that, it’s against the law’ and him saying ‘you are not going to disarm me.’ There’s going to be a gun battle. The article doesn’t hedge,” said Hoffman.
Burrows stated that the words being cited were from a Supreme Court ruling.
“Citizens may resist an unlawful arrest to the point of taking an officer’s life, if necessary. Planner versus the State of Indiana. They are just citing supreme court cases…” said Burrows.
“Let me say right now,” Burrows continued, “that I don’t agree with this. I think it’s crap, is what I think.”
“I wanted to hear you say that,” said Johnson. “Because the guys I work with think this is crap too and I don’t want one of the guys that works for us to see some heretic come here because you are encouraged to be less than a coward. We dealt with this back in 1995. We dealt with it in the last three or four years, where all of a sudden there is something wrong with local law enforcement, when in fact we protect constitutional rights every day.” He called it a “horrible thing to bring to this community.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Foss, “but I think we are getting off course.”
“I don’t think we are,” said Johnson.
“I heard Mr. Burrows say four or five different ways that that’s crap,” said Foss. “I just want to be sure he’s not being tried for what somebody else says when he’s trying honestly to answer your questions. I want to make sure you hear what he’s saying because this is crap. That was a good choice of words.”
Burrows said that he would not hold Johnson responsible if a deputy did something unlawful. He said apparently Farley wrote something saying he agreed with Mr. Hommel.
“I guess he did. But it’s only a couple of hours ago that I saw this,” said Burrows.
“I’m not trying to be unfair,” said Johnson. “I just want the chance to look at you and you get a chance to look at me, and when you say that this is crap, I want you to see a reflection of that, because this is crap.” He said it was not a personal attack, it was just that he saw that Burrows was claiming to be an active member of the group when this was posted. He said he just wanted to hear from Burrows if this is what he truly believed or not.
“I carry a gun,” said Johnson. “I may have to use it some day. But I don’t want to use it against somebody that’s being manipulated to show they are not a coward. I don’t want to do that.”
“I understand,” said Burrows.
“But Perry,” said Commissioner Foss, “I hope you understand that he was part of a group to do survival things and the blog is a separate thing. Other than being the IT guy, this is not his baby. That’s his father-in-law’s choice.” She said that Burrows commitment was simply to a group that she had friends involved with where they learned to can and how to milk a goat and how to build cement bunkers and things like that, in case of any kind of catastrophic situation or just hard times.
“So I’m comfortable in understanding that,” she said. “I just want to make sure that they are not linked. Unless Jeff isn’t being truthful, he isn’t a part of this and I can’t see any evidence that he has been. He’s been involved with a group that’s concerned about goat cheese and has nothing to do with social commentary.”
Burrows stated that he was not trying to defend the document. He described it as Supreme Court rulings “mixed with nonsense.”
“People take Supreme Court rulings and put their own spin on it,” he said. “And how someone spins it, there are lots of ways.”
Hoffman said that he was disturbed by the attitude he had seen the last few years of some people characterizing local law enforcement as enemies of the people. He said that everyone in his office understands the constitution.
“I have worked in this community all my life,” he said. “I don’t have an agenda of world takeover. My job is to keep the peace as best I can and serve my neighbors. I hope and pray that your desire to sit on this board is the same.”
Burrows responded, “I support and hope I can assist you guys the best I can.” He went on to say that there was no actual endorsement by him or any initials or other ties to this letter and the article.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz moved to appoint Burrows to the vacant position on the board.
“I’ve been around Jeff in the last campaign,” said Stoltz. “I was out with Celebrating Conservatism, not a part of it, but then I talked to Jeff. As far as the blog goes, having a father-in-law, I can’t tell my father-in-law what to do or what to think. If we could we would probably be happier, but I believe that we can’t.” He called Burrows “the right candidate.”
“I agree with Ron,” said Iman. “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives. All of us have relatives that we would rather not see as often as some of the other relatives.” He wondered if more time was needed to consider the appointment since Commissioner Greg Chilcott was absent.
Foss said that she believed that Chilcott was OK with the situation so long as the Sheriff had a chance to express his concerns and ask questions. She asked the Sheriff if he was satisfied or if he felt like further investigation was required.
“The decision was and is always yours to make,” said Hoffman. He declined to be involved in deciding the issue of delaying the decision or not.
The commissioners then voted unanimously, with Chilcott absent, to appoint Burrows as Commissioner for District 4.