Last summer I submitted an ethics complaints to Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki regarding the use of government resources and facilities by both the City of Great Falls and Cascade County to benefit the private nonprofit Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc. I alleged there were violations under the Montana Code Annotated and the Official Code of the City of Great Falls.
The county attorney forwarded the city complaint to City Attorney Sara Sexe. The county attorney forwarded the county complaint to the Montana Attorney General, citing conflicts of interest in that the county attorney’s office would be tasked to defend any county official named in the complaint and therefore, can’t consider it (see attached—Racki response).
My complaint about the city, city officials’ responses, background information, etc can be found in the meeting agenda packet here.
The city attorney’s response to me and her attached memorandum, can be found at that link, starting on page 92. It indicated the city was acting to assist the National Heritage Area mainly because of a mention of an NHA in the 2013 Growth Plan and that the violations Sexe found would be dealt with internally. But I wanted a hearing before the Ethics Committee so I pushed for one, until finally, one was granted on February 3, 2021.
I also just noticed that the video of the ethics hearing regarding my complaint is online. Some of you may want to watch it, or at least skim through it. It starts at 10:45 on the video found at: https://greatfallsmt.viebit.com/player.php?hash=6k9j6BW2lj3w
So here’s a short breakdown of a few of the key points in the video along with my commentary after the fact.
@15:20: City Attorney Sexe begins her rationale for city support of the NHA as a city supported project.
When you watch this, keep in mind the main rationale for the city staff assisting assist the National Heritage Area corporation is the 2013 Growth Policy.
In the past though, a deputy city manager offered a reason to dispute use of the 2013 Growth Policy as rationale that the NHA is city-sanctioned or city-sponsored. At the City Commission/Staff Agenda Meeting on July 10, 2013, “Deputy City Manager Jennifer Reichelt reported that Ida Meehan will present a general Growth Policy update at this work session. The public hearing to consider adoption of the proposed update to the Growth Policy is scheduled for August 6, 2013. It was explained that the Growth Policy is a guiding policy and NOT A REGULATORY DOCUMENT” (emphasis added, see attached—Not a regulatory document).
Yes, there we have it—not a regulatory document.
City officials have also used the passage of a resolution in December 2019, in which the city agrees to apply for a grant for the Great Falls Development Authority to pass along to BSCNHA Inc, as proof that the city commission voted for the NHA.
That is false—the commission didn’t vote to approve the NHA and that is backed up by City Commissioner Houck statement at that same meeting. “We’re not saying that we’re endorsing the National Heritage Area, we’re endorsing a grant that increases our economic impact and those are aligned with our city priorities” (City Commission meeting video, December 17, 2019, @ 1:33:40)
So what gives city staff the right to assist a private nonprofit using city resources? Why of course, they give it to themselves.
@18:24: Sexe’s primary opinion is no violation of Montana statutes and she uses the Montana Attorney General office’s response as rationale. She states the county attorney advised that my ethics complaint was provided to the Montana Attorney General who declined to address alleged Montana statutory provisions.
That is only partially true. Yes, the Montana Attorney General declined to address it, but only because that office claimed the jurisdiction for considering the complaint rested locally, with the county attorney (See attached—Attorney General response).
@18:49: City Attorney Sexe admits that with regards to the Official Code of the City of Great Falls, there were issues where technical violations occurred…
In addition, on pages 10 and 11 of the Ethics Committee Agenda packet, Sexe expresses her determination that violations of Official Code of the City of Great
Falls § 2.21.050 (B), (F) and (L) did occur. However, she determined these were addressed internally by the city manager and recommended the Ethics Committee not forward the complaint to the county attorney.
@31:58: City Planning Director Craig Raymond begins response to the allegations.
@32:45: Raymond claims a coordinated attack on the concept of NHAs.
No, I coordinated with no one in bringing this ethics complaint. I discovered what appeared to me to be violations regarding ethics and conflicts of interest snd took action.
@33:08: Raymond accuses NHA opponents of false statements and taking issues and situations out of context.
I’ve made no false statements regarding NHAs, nor have I taken issues and situations out of context. I can only vouch for my own opinions and statements, which I developed and made only after careful research of NHAs. I do not vouch for the statements of others in opposition.
@33:20: Raymond continues accusing NHA opponents, “….and now harass, bully and impugn the character and professional reputation of those who would dare support this worthwhile effort to benefit the community.”
Guess what, City Planning Director Raymond—you’re a city official and are paid by the taxpayers. The citizens of Great Falls have every right to question city officials’ actions on city time, if the citizen perceives a problem. You are accountable to the public. It’s criticism, and nothing more.
I’d like to remind Raymond that I have reached out a number of times to BSCNHA Inc board members, some of whom were also public officials, and my questions and concerns have either gone unanswered or have been met with hostility, every time.
@35:15: Raymond expresses that he’s in the “uncomfortable position of defending and protecting the question of my ethics.”
As a city employee, running a city department, you are a public figure. You are paid with and use our tax dollars. Do you really believe taxpayers have no right to question or criticize your actions?
@41:42: Raymond says, “In my opinion, what was in the Growth Policy and the resolution specifically, this is very direct support and license to join and partner with groups in order to support the NHA in the fashion that we did.”
The 2013 Growth Policy mentions an NHA, but not as a project. I explained this earlier and also talk about this in the video. The resolution, as I mentioned earlier, was only the city commission’s vote to assist Great Falls Development Authority with a grant, the ultimate recipient being BSCNHA Inc. The city commission did not vote to approve the NHA.
@42:08: Raymond begins his assertion that the Civic Center meeting space provided free to BSCNHA Inc is justified, in direct conflict of City Attorney Sexe’s opinion.
He further states, “I find each of the criteria (regarding free meeting room use) have been met during these meetings at the Civic Center.”
That he“ finds,” is attorney talk, yet he is not an attorney. The city attorney did find providing the free meeting room was a violation.
@46:08: In my opinion, this is perhaps the most disturbing statement of all by Raymond and in my opinion, really shows the nature of the beast—that is, the true nature of our city and attitude of some city officials.
Raymond states, “I’ll be honest though, even if the city commission had not adopted the Growth Policy as is written, as they did, I still would have offered the same level of support and encouragement for this project. It was simply the right thing for our office to do, in the fashion that we did. I mean, after all, we helped inspire it, we helped to start it. And actually, my question is, why on earth would we not have done it under the circumstances?” He goes on to say, “I have no regrets on any of our actions regarding the NHA.”
The first shock is that a city official would admit he would offer the same support even if he knew it wasn’t a city-sanctioned or sponsored project. To me, that speaks volumes.
It also appears to me the NHA idea originated not with the city planning department per se, but with the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission (HPAC). Although HPAC is under the city planning umbrella, it is supposed to be an ADVISORY entity for the CITY COMMISSION, not an entity which makes decisions for the city. At least that’s my understanding of a city advisory commissions/boards. But HPAC seemed to overstep its bounds.
Here’s the details regarding HPAC and the NHA:
“TOURISM ASSESSMENT GRANT – HPAC received a $5000 grant from the SHPO for Heritage Planning. The grant will be matched by funding from the TBID ($2600) and in-kind from the City of Great Falls ($2846) The TBID is additionally providing funding to conduct a 3rd party assessment for Great Falls Tourism ($7000) Ellen and Lee working on Tourism Heritage oriented area to promote area visitors” (Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission Minutes from the August 13, 2014). Note—SHPO is State Historic Preservation Office and TBID is Tourism Business Improvement District
“Mr. Nellis said the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission has had a goal for many years of creating a National Heritage Area (NHA) along the Missouri River that would stretch from Fort Benton to Tower Rock. Staff received $5,000 in grant funds from the State to study this project, and the Tourism Business Improvement District is providing a match of about $9,000. Staff is providing work hours.” (Great Falls Planning Advisory Board/Zoning Commission Minutes, December 9, 2014)
“In 2014, the Great Falls-Cascade County Certified Local Government (CLG), began to discuss the concept of an NHA in Montana as such entities gained more popularity in the western United States. The City of Great Falls and the Great Falls – Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission asked the community to join them for the “Grand Tour” event in January 2015 that encompassed the whole region.” (BSCNHA Draft Feasibility Study, p 11)
“Brief Update: There was a follow-up meeting February 26th on the Tourism Assessment & Heritage Area. After a lengthy discussion, Ellen reiterated that the HPAC will be organizing for the National Heritage Area and will form an ad-hoc committee to proceed onward.” (Great Falls/Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission Minutes from the March 11, 2015 Meeting)
“The Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation (UMRHAPC) was legally established in May 2015. The first meeting, held at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, included the organization of a board of directors.” (BSCNHA Draft Feasibility Study, p 11)
All of the above show me that a National Heritage Area was not part of the 2013 City Growth Policy voted on by the city commission. It seems apparent the NHA is not an official city-sanctioned or city-sponsored project
@50:04-58:17: My comments begin. It’s a little over eight minutes but I think it’s worth a listen.
One of the main takeaways for me is that the extensive use of city and county resources to benefit BSCNHA Inc should require that corporation be accountable to the public. Use of public resources should mandate transparency. However BSCNHA Inc has shown that as a private nonprofit it will not be transparent or accountable to the public.
No, BSCNHA Inc has shown little interest in connecting with the public at large. If they had, they would have notified all private landowners within the proposed boundaries of the National Heritage Area (all of Cascade and part of Chouteau counties) of their properties’ inclusion within the proposed NHA. They did not