By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners voted unanimously last Tuesday, February 18, to institute the lawsuit required to collect $29,000 in fines from Treasurer Valerie Stamey. The Commissioners identified in a two hour long process at least 58 monthly reports and settlements, required to be produced as part of the Treasurer’s duties, which were delinquent. According to statute the Treasurer forfeits $500 for each late report and “the Board of County Commissioners shall institute the suits necessary to recover those sums.”
Stamey did not attend the meeting despite having received notice about it from the Commissioners two weeks ago. A letter from Stamey’s attorney was received that day, however, and read into the record.
Stamey’s attorney, Robert Myers, stated in the letter that she “would love the opportunity to respond” but that no facts or evidence of any kind had been submitted in the letter she received concerning the meeting.
“You have merely listed duties of her office without more. Due process requires that Valerie be given reasonable and meaningful opportunity and time to respond. Without evidence or facts for her to respond to, how can her opportunity be meaningful?” wrote Myers.
He notes that Stamey was able to respond to auditor Jim Woy’s report concerning her office because he listed three items she could respond to. Her response was a lawsuit alleging libel (see accompanying story).
“She is sorry it has come to this. How easy it would have been for even one of you to stand up and tell the truth and stop this mess. Sadly, she will have to continue down this path until justice is done,” wrote Myers.
First to speak at the meeting was Elaine Culletto from the Bitterroot Irrigation District. She said the district was five months behind in getting reports from the Treasurer’s office and they believed it was through intent, neglect and refusal on the part of the Treasurer. She said they receive 3 to 5 reports monthly and the last five months were missing. She urged the Commissioners to collect the $500 fine for each delinquent report. She said that as soon as Stamey was appointed she met with her and gave her a list of the required reports and then e-mailed the list to her as well.
“It was extremely obvious within one month of her hire that she had no clue what she was doing,” said Culletto. She said that Stamey blamed everyone but herself.
Culletto said that she had an audit due at the end of February that could not be done without the missing reports.
“Will the county pay the late fees and take responsibility for the late audit?” asked Culletto.
“We think it’s past time that she has some accountability for what she has not done,” said Culletto. “The Treasurer must be held responsible for the overwhelming financial crisis that our county is in.”
In a drawn out process the Commissioners then began to identify records of specific missing reports that were made by school districts, fire districts, cities and towns, irrigation districts, library districts and other entities and departments. They decided to limit the claims to the months of October, November and December which meant there were at least three separate delinquent reports for most entities. A few failed remittances to the Department of Revenue and Lone Rock School and the Sheriff’s Office were also added to the list. It totaled 58 reports or settlements at $500 each for a total of $29,000 in fines.
In public comment, Dan Floyd said that the problems were due to a dysfunctional office but the Treasurer was being blamed for it. He said there were no written policies and procedures for the office and the only people who knew those procedures quit and left Stamey stranded. He said if the county continued on this punitive track that it was going to get costly.
“You need a lot of proof, but I can think of a lot of affirmative reasons on her part that the reports could never have been done,” said Floyd. “Nobody could have physically done the work when three people quit.”
Chuck Roubik said that the commissioners wasted a lot of time doing what the county attorney should have done prior to the meeting which is to identify all the reports that were required and delinquent.
Bill Conlan noted that the commissioners claimed to have made their findings of fact on public comment and testimony, but they had heard testimony from at least one person that there were 10 reports missing.
“Why is that not a fact?” he asked.
Jan Wisniewski said that the county attorney, who serves as the county auditor, was not making his required reports either.
“We are imposing laws on other people when we don’t follow them ourselves,” he said.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that there was a history here of not a lot of documentation. “We need a better written record and we are trying,” said Foss. “When it comes to elected officials you don’t always get what you want.”
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that, “on paper and in the interview,” Stamey was a very good candidate. “She had 33 years of experience in government accounting and a spot on resume,” said Burrows. “But I would like to apologize for what I did. I’m genuinely and sincerely sorry for the decision I made and the turmoil it’s caused.”
Foss said, “I’d say the same thing. It was a night and day difference in the interview. All you can do is go on the information in front of you.”
She said the information they had gave no indication of any problems and they were facing a time crunch to get a new treasurer installed.
“We made the best decision at the time,” said Foss, “but I agree, I’m sincerely sorry for what happened. Now we need to get the audit done. We’ve had five treasurers in three years so we’ve got obvious problems.”
Commissioners Foss and Ron Stoltz both expressed concerns near the end of the meeting that they may have been misled into thinking that this decision had to be made that day or the commission would be in violation of the law. They asked Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht if that was the case.
Recht said that he knew of no deadline for making any decision.
Foss and Stoltz suggested that if immediate action was not necessary they perhaps should wait until after the audit was completed before making any decision.
Burrows noted that they had already established 22 separate findings of fact in the case. He wondered if they were considering retracting their votes on those findings.
Both Foss and Stoltz declined to do that.
Foss asked Recht, “If we decide today and then an investigation comes back with something different, are we then liable and facing a lawsuit?”
Recht said there was no deadline to take action that he was aware of but that the reason the Board was considering it was that information had been produced and members of the public and partnering agencies had urged the commission to take action. He said this meeting gave Stamey the chance to respond and it would not be the last. He said she would get to respond to the lawsuits seeking the fines. He estimated that process could take up to a year.