Written by John Plestina
The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices has decided in favor of Roosevelt County in a complaint by a Wolf Point resident alleging misuse of county funds in support of the voter-approved public safety bonding measure to fund a new jail and office space for the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office.
The decision says the only misstep by the Roosevelt County Commissioners was a statement supporting voter approval of the bonding measure in a paid letter to the editor published in October in The Herald-News and The Searchlight.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl issued a 13-page decision, Thursday, Dec. 18, 13 days after Billy “Bill” Juve filed the complaint alleging that Roosevelt County violated Montana campaign practice laws by using county funds in support of the ballot measure. Juve’s position was that the county commissioners violated an opinion by the Montana Attorney General.
Juve’s complaint came about one month after nearly 57 percent of Roosevelt County voters approved bond funding for a new jail and sheriff’s office space. Juve was a vocal opponent of the bonding measure prior to the Nov. 4 general election.
In the complaint, Juve cited a 2005 opinion by former Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath that public officials may express opinions about issues, but may not do so if the expression uses the public’s time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel or funds.
The three major allegations in Juve’s complaint were that the county commissioners used public funds to pay for newspaper and radio advertising, for paid political letters to the editor in The Herald-News and The Searchlight, and to hire consultant Kimme and Associates Inc., of Champaign, Ill., at a cost of nearly $5,000.
Motl’s findings were that the hiring of a consulting firm and purchasing of advertising for a fact sheet about the then proposal for a new jail was not, by itself, a violation of law.
“A public officer or public employee can present neutral facts and information to electors related to a ballot issue or candidate,” the decision read.
Motl’s decision also dashed an assertion that the county commissioner’s authorization of the use county employees and county vehicles when the commissioners and Sheriff’s Office presented five public informational meetings on the bonding measure was improper. Public officials made use of PowerPoint presentations to educate the public about the need for a new jail.
Motl determined that there were no violations in published meeting notices or in anything that was said at the meetings.
The decision read: “The appearance of public officials at the events and use of public resources [vehicles] to attend the events is not improper as it serves a public purpose by allowing public presentation of information consistent with duty. Agencies of government, like the Roosevelt County Commission, are the natural repositories of information related to their areas of authority. Accordingly, agencies should be expected to [and commended when they do] provide observations, information and data to the public that is of use to an elector when making an election decision.”
The decision also states that there was express advocacy associated with paid letters to the editor. The letters signed by the commissioners, Frederick and jail administrator Melvin Clark asks voters to vote in favor of the bonding measure.
The decision reads that the statement in the letter asking voters to vote in favor of the measure meets the “express advocacy” standard and that the use of public funds to pay for the letter and the time of public officials to write the letter violated the law.
However, Motl considered whether the violation was insignificant enough that it could be excused as “de minimus,” a legal Latin term where courts sometimes refuse to consider trivial matters.
The decision read, “While Mr. Juve should be thanked for raising a necessary discussion, the commissioner [Motl] applies de minimus and dismisses the complaint.”
Juve’s also cited radio advertising for the bonding measure.
The findings were that Sheriff Jason Frederick, then a candidate for sheriff, raised funds to support his contested campaign for election and paid for radio advertising time with non-public funds. When the election became uncontested, Frederick directed prepaid radio advertising to pay for air time educating voters about the need for a new jail. The decision also stated that the jail bond announcements contained an attribution statement: “Paid for by Jason Frederick for sheriff.”
The county commissioners had no statement in response to the decision.
Juve said he was disappointed with the decision.
“The thing that disappointed me is some of the things they don’t address,” he said.
“A ruling is a ruling. There’s nothing you can do about it except go to court,” Juve said. He responded that he was not considering court when asked if he was considering that option.
“I think he’s doing a good thing by filing the complaint,” Motl said.
He said his office addressed four complaints from the recent election cycle, including the complaint Juve filed.
“I found in favor of the governmental speech in each of the four instances,” Motl said.
As far as the decision in regards to the paid letters to the editor, Motl said, “I dismissed the violation. This area of speech is a tricky one because the county official is under the duty to explain to the public the basis for the bond, the basis for a levy.”
Motl said he spent considerable time considering the issue and writing the decision.
“I hope it helps your community understand,” he said.
“A dismissal is not automatic. It’s significant that it was dismissed,” Motl said.
He said his office accepted 80 of 94 complaints that were filed. Fourteen were rejected.
“Of the 80, we issued 55 decisions including the Roosevelt County one. Twenty-eight of them were insufficiencies, meaning they were dismissed,” Motl said.
Deficiencies were found in 27 complaints that might result in fines or possibly progress to court.
Voters in November approved the measure with a 47.58 percent voter turnout. A lower, 34.88 percent voter turnout prevented passage of a similar measure in June.
The approval authorizes the county commissioners to issue and sell $11.86 million in general obligation bonds to be repaid within 20 years.
The current jail is under-sized and does not meet current jail standards.
Legal action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 forced Roosevelt County to reduce the number of jail beds by nearly one half.
Written by Herald-News
The Wolf Point Police Department may be close to making arrests of one or more individuals for more than 30 incidents of windows shot out in houses and parked vehicles on the north side of Wolf Point over a three-week period that began Thanksgiving day with thousands of dollars in reported damages.
Police chief Jeff Harada said Monday, Dec. 22, that his department has witness accounts and has identified suspects, but the incidents remained under investigation.
Police reported 22 calls for shot out windows in homes and vehicles between Dec. 16 and 18. All but one call were on the north side.
The WPPD has offered a $500 cash reward since Monday, Dec. 8, for information leading to the person or persons responsible.
Written by Herald-News
A Culbertson man who alleged wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment while a prisoner in the Roosevelt County Jail in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court recently reached a settlement with Roosevelt County.
Details of the settlement for Kevin Conyers, 36, are not available due to a federal gag order.
Conyers filed the lawsuit against Roosevelt County, the State of Montana, former Sheriff Freedom Crawford, two deputies and a state social worker.
Conyers was arrested in February 2010 and charged with felony sexual assault of a minor child. Bail was set at $100,000.
He was jailed from Feb. 16, 2010, to June 2, 2011.
Roosevelt County attorney Jim Patch later dismissed the charge. He was reported to have said in 2011 that there was no factual basis for the charge and that the alleged offense could not have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Conyers sought several hundred thousand in damages for nine allegations that included unlawful arrest and confinement, and assertions that he was beaten while in jail.
Written by Herald-News
Judging of the Wolf Point Lions Club and Walleyes Unlimited Christmas Lighting Contest was postponed from Sunday, Dec. 21, due to freezing rain. Judging is tentatively rescheduled for Friday, Dec. 26, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
All areas within the city, including east-end and west-end housing, and within five miles of the city limits will be judged.
The grand prize winner will receive $125. There will be two $75 prizes and six honorable mentions at $50 each.
Written by Herald-News
This 2004 Chevrolet Malibu rests on its roof after rolling several times on U.S. Hwy. 2, across from the UPS building east of Wolf Point.
A Wolf Point man walked away from a single-vehicle rollover crash on U.S. Hwy. 2 with a few scratches and three tickets.
The Montana Highway Patrol reported that a westbound 2004 Chevrolet Malibu left the roadway, struck a culvert and rolled several times on the opposite side of the highway from the UPS building, about nine miles east of Wolf Point, about 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 14.
The MHP identified the driver as Martin Weeks, 22.
He was cited from careless driving, driving without a driver’s license and driving without liability insurance.
Alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the crash, the MHP reported.
Weeks was wearing a seatbelt.