By Michael Howell
Ravalli County Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski’s comments at a meeting between the County Commissioners and representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes about placing the Medicine Tree property near Darby, which is owned by the tribes, into a federal trust, continues to stir controversy.
Tribal members took offense at the remarks which referred to the number of “drunken Indians” that have to be dealt with in Havre and other areas located near Indian reservations in Montana and beyond. Many Ravalli County residents were also offended by the remarks and have been vocal about it. The County Commissioners approved writing a letter of apology to the Tribes and agreed that it would be hand-delivered.
Wisniewski has not apologized for his remarks and has hired an attorney who informed the commissioners that they don’t have the right to apologize for him and that Wisniewski was exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech.
His term on the Planning Board ends at the end of this month and he was interviewed last week by the commissioners as an applicant for the next term. Several people at that interview raised the issue of his “racist” remarks and urged the commissioners not to re-appoint him to the board.
Some other people defended Wisniewski. Phil Tummarello, of Stevensville, said he knows Wisniewski and knows that he is not a racist. He said that Wisniewski’s remarks concerning drunken Indians in the Havre jail were not things that he said but things that another person said that he was reporting and that Wisniewski should not be vilified for simply reporting what another person said.
Wisniewski agrees. He stated that he was simply reporting what a commissioner in another county had stated about problems in their county.
In the meantime a newspaper article published in the Ravalli Republic and the Missoulian has set off a firestorm of protest among law enforcement and public officials in Havre.
In the article Wisniewski is quoted as saying that he “had a conversation with law enforcement officials in Havre who complained about their jails being filled with ‘drunken Indians’ off the reservation.”
The Havre Daily News then ran reports based on that story and the response in Havre from law enforcement and commissioners in Hill and Blaine Counties was quick and loud.
According to the Havre Daily News, Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said he could not find any local officials who had met Wisniewski, much less made the comments.
“We have not been able to verify in any way, shape or form him communicating with anybody,” Peterson is quoted as saying. “We do not need that kind of information coming out in Hill County or even surrounding counties to, if you will, badmouth us if it’s not true.”
Blaine County Sheriff Glenn Huestis is quoted as saying, “It really makes working relationships with other entities tough when these comments surface without any validity to them.”
Hill County Sheriff Don Bostrom is quoted as saying, “We are having so many negative comments directed at local law enforcement, which doesn’t just include the (Hill County) sheriff, it includes Blaine County, fish and game, the police department, the Border Patrol… every law enforcement agency in Hill County got a black eye over that, and I think it was credited inappropriately.”
Wisniewski told the Bitterroot Star that he was misquoted in the news article. He claims that he did not attribute the remarks to law enforcement but to a county commissioner whom he says he actually spoke with two years ago. He would not name the commissioner.
Wisniewski said that his remarks have been taken out of context and the whole thing has been blown out of proportion.
Critics at his recent interview for re-appointment claim that it is Wisniewski’s comments at the original meeting that were out of context since it had nothing to do with the issue being discussed which was transferring title of a piece of land already owned by the Tribes into federal trust status.
Several candidates for Wisniewski’s position have also been interviewed. The Commissioners expect to make a decision on the appointment on January 2 at 11 a.m.
In the meantime the County Commissioners have written their second objection to the Tribal land transfer based on the latest response by the Tribes to the County Commissioners’ initial criticisms.