By Michael Howell
Ravalli County Commissioner J.R Iman apologized to the Bitterroot Star last Thursday for telling the newspaper, on four separate occasions, that attorney Terance Perry, who represented Big Sky Development in its recently settled lawsuit against the county, participated in a closed door discussion of the settlement agreement with the commissioners. The Bitterroot Star filed suit in District Court on Friday, June 6 seeking to void that decision. At least one of the claims in that lawsuit alleged violation of the open meeting law by allowing the developer’s attorney to stay in that closed session. On Thursday, Iman said that he was mistaken and that the developer’s attorney was not present in the closed part of the meeting.
The Bitterroot Star did not have a reporter at the May 12th meeting at which the commissioners decided to settle the lawsuit with Big Sky Development. The draft minutes of the meeting make it appear that the developer’s attorney may have remained in the closed session. Glenda Wiles, the Commissioners’ Administrative Assistant, who took the minutes, was contacted for clarification. Wiles said that she left the room when the public was excluded but did not see the developer’s attorney leave the room. She said he was sitting in the same chair when she went back in, but, she added, there is a back door to the conference room and she would not be able to see that doorway from her office so she could not be sure if he left or not. Three county commissioners were contacted separately by telephone and asked to verify whether the attorney stayed in the closed session or not.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that he couldn’t remember if the developer’s attorney was in the room during the closed session or not. He said it had been a few weeks and he could just not be sure. However, Commissioners J.R. Iman and Jeff Burrows both confirmed that the developer’s attorney was in the room during the closed session, without expressing any doubt.
At the end of May the Commissioners approved a tax levy to pay for the $675,000 settlement. Following an interview about that decision in the commissioners’ meeting room with all three commissioners present, the reporter asked again whether or not the developer’s attorney had participated in the closed session. Iman answered unequivocally that the attorney was one of the three attorneys present at the closed session and he named them, County Attorney Howard Recht, MACo Attorney Alan McCormick, and the developer’s attorney Terance Perry. Chilcott and Burrows did not comment. No one contradicted Iman or expressed doubts.
The Bitterroot Star filed suit on Friday, June 6, alleging, in part, that the developer’s attorney had participated in the closed session, based on Iman’s and Burrows’ confirmation of that fact.
When the papers were served upon Commissioner Burrows that same day, he read the lawsuit and expressed some doubt about the fact that the developer’s attorney was in the closed session. The reporter called Iman on the spot and told him that the commissioners were being served papers on a lawsuit that claims, in part, that the developer’s attorney was in the closed session. Iman said, without hesitation, that it was true. He named the three attorneys involved and said they were all there during the closed deliberations.
Iman’s response was relayed to Burrows and he was reminded that he, himself, did tell the Star without doubt the first time he was asked that Perry was in the closed session. Burrows was asked if he was changing his mind. He said no. He said he did have some doubts now about his recollection but he was sticking with what he first recalled, that Perry was there in the closed session.
Because of his doubts he suggested calling the attorney. He called McCormick and, according to Burrows, McCormick was not sure and was going to call the developer’s attorney for verification.
Burrows did not get back to the Star and news of the lawsuit being filed was published in the newspaper on Wednesday, June 11.
The next day KECI reporter Kevin Maki stopped by the Bitterroot Star office to talk about the lawsuit. He mentioned that he was there at the settlement meeting. He told the Bitterroot Star that he believed that he and one of the attorneys left the room together and waited in the hallway for a very short time until the doors were opened. He said he believed it was the developer’s attorney, Terance Perry, but that he could not be sure.
The Bitterroot Star contacted Iman in person at his office immediately upon getting this information. The reporter stated that this was the fourth time he was asking Iman the question and he needed to know for sure since it was an issue in the lawsuit. Iman vigorously confirmed that the attorney was in the closed session. He held up three fingers and named off the attorneys present at the closed session including Perry. He said, in fact, that it was the developer’s attorney that he saw conduct Maki to the back door and shut the door behind him while he stayed in the room. He said unequivocally that all three lawyers were in the room during the closed session.
Less than half an hour after that conversation, Iman called the Bitterroot Star and said he was sorry, but he was wrong. He said he had talked with his attorney and found out that, “apparently the developer’s attorney was not in the room.” He said it was actually Recht that ushered both Maki and Perry from the room, shut the door and remained standing inside. He apologized.
Commissioner Burrows was contacted and said that he had talked to the county attorney’s office.
“Apparently, the developer’s attorney was not in the room during the closed session, and I have been advised not to comment,” said Burrows.
“This is certainly an unexpected development,” said Bitterroot Star publisher Victoria Howell. “We’ll have to talk things over with our attorney and consider our options at this point. There is really a lot about this case that defies understanding.”