Last summer, I submitted a formal complaint to the Cascade County Attorney against the City of Great Falls regarding use of government resources (aka our tax money) to support a private nonprofit—Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc. I cited portions of both the Montana Code Annotated and the Official Code of the City of Great Falls that I felt were violated.
BSCNHA Inc is the organization pushing National Heritage Area designation for ALL of Cascade County and a large portion of Chouteau County. This includes ALL PRIVATE LAND found within the NHA’s proposed boundaries.
The county attorney referred my complaint to City Attorney Sara Sexe.
By law, the Ethics Committee is an initial step before the county attorney can consider the complaint.
After many months of waiting, I’ve been granted a hearing before the City of Great Falls Ethics Committee. The hearing is 3 p.m. on Wednesday Feb 3 in the city commission chambers (Civic Center).
Strangely, unlike other city meetings this one will offer no opportunity to comment by phone, nor will it be broadcast online. However it is a public meeting, so interested folks can attend in person.
Through extensive research, I have proof that city officials provided mapping services, space for meetings and more, to BSCNHA Inc, using city employees on city time and with city resources. City officials have also admitted in their responses to having assisted BSCNHA Inc.
The city’s main argument for providing assistance to this private nonprofit’s project is that the NHA is “city-sanctioned.” The city claims that the following ambiguous statement, found in a 2013
Great Falls Growth Policy Update, proves that the city “sanctioned” their support of the NHA:
“There is great interest in designating the Missouri River and its association with Lewis and Clark, as a National Heritage Area. Such a designation would further bolster the tourist potential of Great Falls.”
Please note that this statement came before BSCNHA Inc was formed in 2015 and certainly, long before the NHA draft feasibility statement was released last year detailing the NHA proposal and area boundaries.
So how can the city claim they were on board with this NHA project in 2013, when it was not a project then, but merely an abstraction?
Further, the proposed boundaries of the NHA have changed over the years and currently bear little resemblance to its earlier concept, which was mostly a narrow corridor along the Missouri River.
Also note that the statement makes no claim that the city will commit employee time and resources to the National Heritage Area effort or to BSCNHA Inc.
In fact, the city commission never voted on providing our government resources to support this private nonprofit. Instead, certain city officials through the years deemed the NHA was a “worthwhile” project and that was enough for them to justify allocating taxpayer-funded city resources to BSCNHA Inc.
Even though my complaint contains no specific allegation against her, City Commissioner Tracy Houck asked for this hearing to be a closed (not public) meeting, stating—“This appears to be a personal attack on me.”
Wow, does she really think everything is about her or is she merely attempting to quell the public’s free speech and right to petition government with her phony accusation? Either way, it’s reprehensible.
Houck has served on the city commission since 2016 and is still apparently ignorant of the criteria that would warrant a closed meeting.
In my opinion, her request that this complaint alleging city malfeasance be relegated to a closed meeting, is, in itself, a violation of public trust.
By the way, I only discovered the changes in meeting rules I mentioned earlier by accessing the agenda packet here: https://mccmeetings.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/greatfls-pubu/MEET-Packet-cd5ab08251354a07b6fede78acd47fc0.pdf
So do you think the city could have mustered the common decency to let me know by directly communicating with me, the complainant, that their meeting rules had changed? Or is that too much to expect?
I invite interested citizens to come to this hearing to show support for holding our city officials accountable for their actions. Written comments will also be accepted.
Email comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include “Ethics Complaint Agenda Item #3” in the subject line, and include the name of the commenter and either an address or whether the commenter is a city resident. Please ensure that comments arrive before 10 am on Wednesday. February 3, 2021.