Commissioner Jeff Burrows has asked the Bitterroot Star for some clarification concerning last week’s editorial dealing with the politicization of the county workforce and the blatant cronyism involved. He believes he was unjustly smeared by the broad brush approach that lumped him with Commissioners Foss and Stoltz under the banner of “new breed” Republican. He thinks people might jump to the conclusion that he was involved in all the events being chronicled when he was not.
Our editorial began by relating a series of events in which no commissioners were actually named and the first time we did drop a few, one happened to be his. We can understand his concern. Nobody wants to be linked to some illegal actions they had no part in. There was a commissioner involved in all this who is no longer with us, the one Burrows replaced, Matt Kanenwisher. To be fair to Commissioner Burrows, some clarification is really required. So let’s name a few names.
It was Commissioners Foss, Stoltz and Kanenwisher, along with Chilcott and Iman, who tried, illegally we might add, to cover up the political purge of the County Attorney’s office by keeping their quarter million dollar settlement agreement over the issue a secret. Burrows was not involved.
It was Commissioners Foss, Stoltz and Kanenwisher who held the illegal meeting where they made the illegal decision to spend $50,000 in road repairs to basically undo a previous lawsuit settlement agreement to the developer’s benefit. Commissioner Stoltz ordered the clerk to put it on the agenda two hours before the meeting despite the fact that she told him it was not sufficient legally. When they held the meeting two hours later it was in the commissioners meeting room and not on-site as the agenda stated. Commissioner Chilcott participated by phone. He should have known the meeting was illegal since he was calling from on-site wondering where everybody was. Burrows was not involved. Neither was Commissioner Iman.
It was Commissioners Foss, Stoltz and Kanenwisher who fired the previous Road Superintendent in what began in a very ugly and inconsiderate fashion and then got worse. Initially the Commission waited until the man went on vacation and then called him at his mother’s house in Wisconsin to inform him that a meeting had been scheduled in a few days to consider his termination. They suggested he could participate by telephone if he couldn’t fly right back to attend. It was an inexcusable way to begin their hatchet job and indicates their mean intent from the outset. Commissioners Chilcott and Iman could not go along with it in the end. They felt termination was too severe for an employee with an unblemished record and no bad marks in his personnel file. They suggested writing him up, making their objections clear, and giving him directions on how to correct things. The other three, who were obviously out to remove him all along, disagreed and the hatchet came down. The claims in the resulting lawsuit could cost the county millions. Burrows was not involved.
It was after this that Kanenwisher left and moved to Utah and Burrows came on board.
We mentioned in our editorial that Stoltz and Burrows then swooped in to micro-manage the Road Department. Burrows notes that someone had to move in and take charge since there was no supervision of the employees at all. That’s correct. He also claims that his involvement was minimal and cordial with the employees but they did tell him they had issues with other commissioners. We will take Burrows at his word for now, but there has been a Human Rights Complaint filed by one employee that left during this period and we know some employees disagree with Burrows’ account. There is no question, though, that most of the complaints we heard focus on Commissioner Stoltz. He was, from the beginning, the point-man in the affair, probably due to his extensive road work experience. He knows how the department should be run and he is intent upon seeing it run his way. We believe that effort is continuing unabated as he manages the new managers of the department. Some people may think this is a good thing for a commissioner with some special know-how to stay on top things. But we don’t. Commissioners are elected to be policy makers, not managers. That’s why selecting good department heads you can trust to do their jobs is so important. Stoltz should concentrate on that instead.
Which brings us to the Treasurer’s appointment. Burrows told us that if we had attended the interviews we would have seen without doubt the reasons for picking Stamey. He also told us that his decision included consideration of things that no one else is privy to, such as personnel files, which he cannot discuss in public. He said it was not a close call.
But if we look at the list of 22 questions asked the applicants and the commissioners scoring from 1 to 5 on each question, the result is Stamey 423.5 and Isaacs 421.5. In need of a judgment call? We’d say so. Look at the applications and job history. Burrows himself characterized it as one “strong on accounting with no management experience” and one “strong on management experience with some accounting.” What was so blatant in the interviews that made the decision plain to Burrows? He didn’t say. Did private information contained in personnel files make the choice plain? We can’t say. So we stick by our original assessment that the Commission placed office management skills over the ability to perform the job duties. Do you call it cronyism? We do. We believe Stamey’s political orientation played a key role in tipping the balance. And it turns out her office management skills may have been greatly over estimated and that “some accounting” turns out to be not enough to do the job. Maybe they will find someone besides Isaacs to train her now that Isaacs refused and quit.
Burrows also bristled at being referred to as a “new breed” of “no compromise,” “anti-government” commissioner. He said he compromises all the time. He thinks that he is being stigmatized by a single decision to reject Title X funding and nothing else. He didn’t elaborate on his many compromises so we can’t comment without knowing what they involved. But the decision on Title X funding was and is a huge issue of major importance and his decision certainly places him in the “new breed,” “no compromise,” “anti-government” camp. In our opinion, he made his decision on a single point involving very, very few, if any, real cases and real individuals. An entire program devoted to the most needy in our community was dumped to make a political statement about the parental notification requirements (actually the lack of them), that affects about one percent of the people that benefit from the program’s services. Burrows may indeed compromise on some issues but this one is a major, you could say, defining issue.
Commissioners Burrows and Foss both told me that they resented our comment that their stands on the burgeoning “Coordination” movement were not mentioned during the campaign. They both insist otherwise.
Apparently our comments on this are in need of clarification as well. We did not mean to suggest that the word “coordination” was not mentioned in the campaign. But when more than a word was said it was defined as simply “getting a place at the table” in discussions and negotiations with the federal government, mainly over natural resource management, like wolves and timber. What no one brought forward and made plain was the degree to which it explicitly calls for a concerted legal attack on the federal government on several fronts that could end up costing the county taxpayers dearly.
This part of the program was only divulged after the elections. It was at the first hearing on wolf policy held in Darby where Commissioner Foss and members of the Republican Central Committee handed out a Coordination manual produced by a Texas organization called American Stewards of Liberty. It outlines a program for instituting “Coordination,” including the legal strategy, and the need to file lawsuits to gain local control of federal lands. Not exactly just “getting a place at the table.”
The Commissioners decided our county should join that organization and did. Next came the hiring of an out-of-state attorney to represent the county’s interests in regard to federal water right applications. This new attorney, a self-avowed expert in “coordination,” puts it pretty plainly on her company’s website.
“While landowners, businesses, and local governments have not been as rambunctious at filing petitions and litigation (or getting paid to file petitions and litigation against the federal government), we have to change that mind set to survive.” Commissioner Foss is obviously out to change our mindset in Ravalli County.
All the commissioners voted to set up a fund for donations to hire this attorney. It’s true that no taxpayer dollars are involved… right now. But it is clear that the attorney hired believes that litigation must be the eventual outcome of the process. The work she is being hired to do would be laying the groundwork for objections in state and possibly federal court. What if it does lead to litigation as she advocates? What if donations run short after litigation has been entered on behalf of the county? Who pays?
Commissioner Foss is in complete support of this agenda and has already discussed setting up another fund to pay $5,000 to join the American Lands Council which she, at first, suggested might include at least some taxpayer support, about $3,000. All the commissioners balked at Foss’s proposition when it was presented. They wanted to know more about the organization. Well, just Google it and see for yourself. Is litigation a part of their strategy for taking control of federal lands? It sure is. We have yet to see if the commission will buy into this one.
It is this aggressive, assertive, and probably costly legal attack on the federal government that is without a doubt an essential part of the Coordination movement and we don’t recall any candidate making that an explicit part of their election campaign. Foss should have been the one to make it plain but she did not.
One reason Burrows balked at that meeting was because such an important decision required more public vetting than simply the two members of the public present at the time, “especially if it involves even one dollar of taxpayer funds.” Bravo for Burrows.
And here we see something about Burrows that distinguishes him dramatically from all four of our other commissioners and from many past commissioners – his genuine passion for transparency in government. As he himself put it to us, “…my commitment to open government and public participation, I think it is the most important aspect of our roles as county commissioners.” This could be just talk, of course, the kind you often hear during election campaigns where almost every candidate wants to give lip service to transparency in government. But Burrows walks the walk. He has shown consistently, on several occasions, a willingness to go the extra mile in terms of insisting on meetings being noticed appropriately and decisions being made in the open with the maximum amount of public participation possible. We could use a lot more politicians of this kind whether they are Republicans, Democrats, or whatever. Commissioners Foss and Stoltz, on the other hand, have shown us that they are willing to violate the public notice and open meeting laws on purpose to achieve their aims.