Call it what you will—Conflict of Interest by any other name is still Conflict of Interest
The Great Falls City Commission voted 4-1 on June 1 to reappoint Big Sky Country National Heritage Area board members Rich Ecke and Ellen Sievert to the city/county Historic Preservation Commission (HPAC).
Commissioner Tryon, the only dissenting vote, aptly pointed out that according to the City of Great Falls Code of Ethics, conducting business related to the National Heritage Area while a HPAC member, when you also sit on the BSCNHA Inc board, (which is a private corporation) has at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In case you haven’t been to one, city commission meetings are not balanced in that after public comment, the commissioners get to respond to what the public has said and they can say whatever they want—even thinly veiled insults, incorrect information and outright lies—and the public is not allowed to respond. So here are my responses.
In response to Commissioner Moe—You are not an attorney. I am not an attorney either but I did speak with one. It is indeed a conflict of interest for someone to serve on a city advisory board and make decisions and take actions to further the interests of a private corporation when he or she also sits on that corporation’s board.
The attorney’s informed opinion is that I am correct in noting that conflicts of interest have occurred with the city actions regarding BSCNHA Inc.
It was mentioned that the National Heritage Areas is part of the city’s 2013 Growth Plan. You used that as justification for the city’s involvement with the National Heritage Area. Did you even read the document? Actually, the 2013 Growth Policy merely states the following:
Develop, maintain and enhance the River’s value as a public amenity and resource, including resource management determined to be consistent with these values, such as:
Public access, connectivity and viewing
Leisure, dining and mixed-use development
Designation as a National Heritage area
Please note that the 2013 Growth Policy only provides guidance to develop, maintain and enhance the RIVER’s value to be consistent with values such as a potential National Heritage Area designation. It doesn’t authorize city officials to assist with any National Heritage Area designation.
The 2013 Growth Policy also obviously DOES NOT mandate or direct the city to provide city resources to a private corporation seeking a National Heritage Area designation. growth_policy_update_2013_page 135
In 2013, there was no fleshed-out National Heritage Area plan or even boundaries for such. The National Heritage Area became an actual project only in 2015. It was then known as Upper Missouri River National Heritage Area and included only a narrow corridor along the Missouri River.
So the current National Heritage Area proposal, which has expanded through the years to include all of Cascade County and a portion of Chouteau County, is nothing like what was just an idea in 2013 or what was first proposed in 2015.
In addition, at the July 10, 2013, City Commission Work Session, Deputy City Manager Jennifer Reichelt explained that the Growth Policy is a “guiding policy and not a regulatory document.” I think that statement says it all—it is not a regulatory document. Therefore, the city’s claim that the 2013 Growth Plan authorizes the city’s involvement with the National Heritage Area is false. Growth Plan not a regulatory document.pdf
The city did much of the mapping and associated database work for BSCNHA Inc. That is city time and resources (taxpayer money) to benefit a private corporation. The city also supplied the meeting room for BSCNHA Inc. I filed an ethics complaint against the city after uncovering this apparent misuse of city resources.
I was granted a city ethics hearing on my complaint. I suggest you read those documents and watch the video. Yes, the Ethics Committee decided the city’s involvement with BSCNHA Inc wasn’t a conflict of interest. They, like you, misinterpreted the 2013 Growth Policy and decided the National Heritage Area could be consider “city-sponsored” solely on that document.
But the Ethics Committee is not a court of law, it is another advisory board appointed by the city commission. The Ethics Committee ruling was incorrect according to the attorney I spoke with about it. Unfortunately, the only remaining relief would be to try to prove it in court, and that’s not economically feasible for most Great Falls residents. Sad that there’s little recourse for the average citizen when the government is involved.
If you do watch that video, also note that City Planning Director Raymond makes a statement, the gist of which is—whether or not the National Heritage Area was considered “city sponsored” he would still have allocated city resources to benefit BSCNHA Inc because he feels the National Heritage Area is a worthwhile project.
In my opinion, that shows an incredible amount of arrogance, not to mention that the Montana Code Annotated and the City of Great Falls Code of Ethics seem to forbid the use of government resources for a government official’s personal interest.
In response to Commissioner Houck—don’t be so triggered. Even though you are a former board member of the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc, this is NOT all about you. It also is not personal attacks on you or any other city official when citizens raise concerns, express opinions or criticize the actions or question the motives of those who are supposed to be working for us. It’s quite amusing that you are always ready to dish out the criticism to citizens like me but cry foul if you think you’re being criticized.
Yes, BSCNHA Inc did indeed have meetings—with small groups and people of their choosing. As far as public meetings, I went to a supposed “community conversation” at Black Eagle and the public was offered NO OPPORTUNITY to ask questions or make comments. Others reported the same experience at the Belt “community conversation.” Not much of a community conversation when the public isn’t allowed to speak.
BSCNHA Inc decided to include all of Cascade County and part of Chouteau County—most of which is PRIVATE land—within the National Heritage Area boundaries but didn’t think it necessary to notify all the landowners within its boundaries.
That’s ludicrous! You have no idea how many people I meet that are just learning about this National Heritage Area or never even heard of it. The four ladies who sat in front me last night at the commission meeting (never met them before) told me they had never heard of the National Heritage Area. So don’t tell me it has widespread support or even awareness.
In response to Commissioner Robinson—you totally missed the point when you talked about how people are often on many boards and commissions. Yes, that is true and I know you are on quite a few, likely unassociated boards/commissions. But it’s an entirely different situation when someone is a member of both a city board/commission and a private corporation, when those two entities have dealings with each other.
The Historic Preservation Advisory Commission members that are also on BSCNHA Inc board helped arranged for free city meeting rooms and city mapping work to benefit a private corporation—arguably at taxpayer expense.
It’s reminiscent of when HUD reprimanded the city for certain block grant allocations several years ago.
Some members of the city advisory board tasked to make grant allocations were also members of the organizations that received grant money.
HUD determined that was a conflict of interest. Commissioner Robinson, did you miss all of that?
In response to Commissioner Tryon—thank you so much for standing up for ethics in city government! You appear to get it, whereas it appears the other commissioners and the mayor do not. It’s a sad state of affairs when only one city commissioner understands the conflicts of interest involved in these reappointments.