Bridger Canyon Fire Board Chairman Officially Recalled

Recount confirms recall of Bridger Canyon Fire District chairman

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2014 11:25 am

The Bridger Canyon Rural Fire District board chairman has been officially recalled after a recount of ballots from the May 6 election.

The recount, conducted by Gallatin County Commissioners on Friday morning, confirmed Mike Conn was recalled 195-194.

“I’m not terribly surprised,” Conn said. “It is what it is. We’ll go from there.”

According to the fire district’s bylaws, the County Commission will appoint Conn’s replacement, who will sit until the next regularly scheduled election. Trustees are elected to three-year terms.

Eight supporters of Conn were at the hour-long recount, which took place in the county courthouse in Bozeman. One person from the opposition attended.

Conn said he would continue to serve as the volunteer fire department’s training officer.

“I’ll stay on at the pleasure of the chief. It’s up to him,” Conn said after the recount.

Voters in the May 6 election decided the fates for each of the board’s five trustees individually. Conn was the only board member to be recalled.

Trustees Colleen Carnine (189 votes for recall, 198 against), Margaret Foster (165 for, 205 against), Dennis Guentzel (149 for, 219 against) and Dave McKee (169 for, 216 against) kept their seats.

During a canvass of the election, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously agreed to recount Conn’s recall because of the one vote margin. After a quiet hour of counting and recounting ballots in the county courthouse, the commission voted unanimously again – this time to accept the results of the recount.

For more than a year, a group of Bridger Canyon residents known as the Bridger Canyon Fire District Safety Coalition campaigned to remove the entire board, alleging violations of the public’s trust and Montana’s open meetings law.

“I’m glad to see that it worked out exactly the same way it was originally counted,” said John Maloney, the coalition’s representative at the recount. Maloney has applied to replace Conn.

“As far as I know the coalition is supporting me, but it is up to the county commissioners to decide,” Maloney said.

 

The Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation

We would like to clarify the steps involved in the criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s department into the BCFD fire board’s behavior, and the subsequent “request for prosecution”. This information has been discussed with the Sheriff’s department, to ensure accuracy.

Request for prosecution

  • The Sheriff’s department reviewed information provided as part of a complaint and opened an investigation into the BCFD fire board’s conduct in September 2013.
  •  As part of the investigation, the Sheriff’s department talked to both sides, gathered evidence and facts, reviewed those findings, and compiled all supporting documentation.
  •  The Sheriff’s department determined there was sufficient evidence to file a “request for prosecution” with the county attorney in February 2014.
  • A “request for prosecution” lists potential allegations, potential criminal charges, identifies potential defendants and witnesses, and provides all documentation related to the investigation.
  • The county attorney then decides whether to file criminal charges.

Additional information

  • Sheriff Gootkin attended a special board meeting in March 2014. Reporters from KTVM also attended and interviewed Gootkin after the meeting. During this interview, Gootkin stated, “We gather the facts from both sides of the situation and then we evaluate the evidence and the facts, and if we feel as though that fits the criminal statute, then we submit that to the county attorney’s office, and that’s what we did in this case.” The sheriff’s office today verified that this quote was 100% accurate. To hear the sheriff’s interview, go to http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/investigation-into-bcrfd-board-turned-over-to-county-attorney/25206982
  • Two news stations, KZBK and KTVM, have both reported that the county attorney may choose to file criminal charges based on the Sheriff’s department “request for prosecution” findings.

We hope this information helps correct the inaccuracies presented to you through an email from Marilyn and John Rogers on Tuesday, April 22, on behalf of the trustees. Please exercise your right to vote, and vote “yes” to recall all five trustees of the Bridger Canyon Fire District.

It is time for new leadership that will follow the law, encourage public input into decisions affecting us all, and restore our volunteer firefighting force to the level of competency we enjoyed prior to May 2013. Vote for Franklin Coles and John Maloney as trustees.

Decision to Oust the Chief

One of the facts asserted in the recall petitions is that the Fire Board made a covert decision to oust the Chief. Supporting documentation follows:

  •  Early in the fall of 2012, the Board advertised a facilities maintenance position. Chief Astrom had been working under contract at $26.25/hour to do maintenance for some time. Email correspondence between the Board and the County Attorney’s office show that the Board considered Chief Astrom to be the most qualified person for the salaried position and fully expected to retain him.
  • Also in the fall of 2012, the Board was considering a change to BCRFD policy to allow alcohol in the community room of the Fire Station.  All of the Trustees except Franklin Coles were in favor of allowing alcohol. The Chief, the volunteer firefighters and some community members opposed because of increased risk to safety on the roads and the liability to the District.  On December 3, 2012, following intense scrutiny from the public and the media, the Trustees unanimously voted against allowing alcohol.  Trustees Peggy Foster, Dave McKee, Mike Conn, and Colleen Carnine completely reversed their earlier and consistently stated positions.
  • Just prior to the alcohol vote, on November 28, 2012, an email from Cam Gould was sent to all of the Trustees except Franklin Coles. The email urged Trustees Mike Conn, Peggy Foster, Colleen Carnine and Dave McKee to consider whether the chief was “fit”. (Cam Gould and his wife, Val Gould have been very strong and vocal supporters of allowing alcohol in the community room.) To read this email in its entirety, click here, but in part it says:

 It is important that we eliminate the divisiveness between BCFD and the Citizens. The first step is to allow the democratic process to play. The second would be to eliminate the areas of dissention. This latter involves corrective action. Necessary and possibly sticky, yet opportunities exist for growth both in competency and support if these hard decisions are made.”

  • December 4, 2012 Trustee Dave McKee alerted Trustee Mike Conn just two days after the alcohol vote, to consider the ramifications of initiating a performance review of the Chief on the heels of the alcohol debate: “ I am almost certain this will cause far greater hard feelings…. I just question the timing, only a few days after the alcohol vote and before Christmas”. The fact that the Trustees have suddenly decided to review the Chief, and McKee knows that the review will be negative, before the review is even started, indicates a pre-determined outcome of the yet-to-be-conducted review.
  • In an executive session on December 20th only a few weeks after the alcohol vote, the Board decided to outsource facilities maintenance instead of hiring Chief Astrom. Chief Astrom was not present at this meeting, and the Board did not inform him of this decision.  At this closed session, the Board contrived problems with the Chief’s performance. The Board’s decision to conduct the first Chief’s review in the Department’s history, was not announced to the public, and Trustee, Franklin Coles, was not included in any conversations or emails about this decision prior to this item being listed on the agenda.
  • On January 6, 2013 Board member Franklin Coles pointed out in an email to the other Trustees (Foster, McKee, Carnine and Conn) that there was no public discussion of the decision to implement a performance review of the Chief.
  • A January 16, 2013 email from Dave McKee to Mike Conn indicates that the board decided not to honor their earlier commitment to make the Chief’s job a salaried position.
  • February, 2013 in a contentious Board meeting to discuss the review of the chief, fire fighters and many community members pointed out that the hastily contrived review of Chief Astrom and behind-the-scenes decision to outsource the maintenance position was retaliatory in nature.
  • A special board meeting on March 6, 2013 included two community members who asked the Trustees if they were trying to get rid of the Chief. Trustee Colleen Carnine responded with a vehement, “YES!” No other board members contradicted her claim.
  • On March 7, 2013 in a series of emails, Rick Anderson, an ardent Board supporter, tells Mike Conn that the Chief must improve or be fired.
  • On March 15, 2013 Dave McKee sent an email to Jerry Perkins in which he states that “there is no question that the real division between the Board and the FD is linked almost exclusively to the alcohol issue.” In that same chain of emails, Dave outlined 3 options for Chief Astrom: Astrom can either get the FF to support the Board; relinquish his maintenance and administrative duties; or resign. About the possibility of the Chief resigning, Trustee Dave McKee states “He would certainly take some, maybe all fire fighters with him”.
  • Through March , April and into May of 2013 there were discussions between the Board and the Chief regarding mediation (see the Mediation Timeline for details). A meeting was scheduled with the Chief on May 20 to discuss some personnel issues. In the days leading up to that meeting, the Board clearly expected to force the Chief’s resignation. For example:

On May 16, 2013, a week before Chief Astrom resigned, when mediation in good faith was absolutely essential to District safety, Trustee Carnine stated by email “If the firefighters have a problem with what we are proposing for the Mediation, too bad. It is time to draw the proverbial line in the sand…This has come to a point of no return and this is a fence that can no longer be mended with  the chief.” 

On May 18, 2013, Trustee McKee wrote to Trustee Conn about the liability risk to the Board if all the firefighters left the department and someone’s house burned. McKee   suggested looking at increasing the department’s coverage.

On May 19, 2013, in a series of emails, the Board discusses giving the county and their mutual aid partners “a heads up as to what is happening and what could be a result” of the May 20th meeting with the Chief.

Board members were making decisions affecting our safety behind the scenes including the decision to oust the Chief.  Colleen Carnine was very clear when she told a community member that the Board’s goal was to get rid of the chief. The Board’s own communications indicate that prior to the alcohol vote, the Board was satisfied with the chief. However, immediately following that vote, the Board secretly and without consulting Trustee Franklin Coles, decided to review the chief, decided to outsource maintenance and administration, and engaged in a pattern of hostility so severe that they succeeded in their endeavors, to the detriment of every person in the District.

Trustees Peggy Foster, Dave McKee, Mike Conn and Colleen Carnine claim there were performance issues with Chief Astrom, but even if there were legitimate issues, they failed to make them known or address them constructively. Their poor management led to the resignation of a highly respected chief and over 80% of a highly trained and experienced volunteer force. Management that loses over 80% of a skilled workforce (whether volunteer or not) should lose their job as well.

Vote to recall these Trustees and elect Franklin Coles and John Maloney–qualified leaders who value the contributions of our greatest asset – our volunteer firefighters.

He Said, She Said

In our recent post on the Trustees and their supporters’ exclusivity in regard to who they consider important in the district, we reported on a statement made by a reporter at KTVM. There were two Safety Coalition representatives at that meeting and they both believe what was stated in the blog post was accurate. Yet Trustee Peggy Foster took exception to that and has reported to have obtained an email from the Executive Producer at KTVM denying what the reporter said.

It seems a bit curious that the reporter in question chose not to comment himself on the accuracy of our report and we find it difficult to believe that Peggy Foster actually polled all the Trustees as well as their supporters to confirm no one made those statements. This obviously has become a “he said, she said” controversy, which is exactly what we’ve strived to avoid in our posts.

Our goal in getting our message out to District residents is to offer either statements based on confirmable evidence which we reference (and often provide copies of pertinent documents), or if it’s an editorial opinion about an event, that we make it clear that it is our interpretation of the situation. Our statement of what we believe the reporter relayed to us clearly does not meet that standard. As such we are taking down that blog post.

We apologize for not sticking to our standards and will strive even harder to do so in the future.

Continued Patterns of Illegal Behavior

Perhaps the marginalization of some members of the Bridger Canyon Fire District is what helps the Trustees rationalize their continued disregard for both the law, their obligations as public officials, and their public duty to District residents. In a previous blog post entitled, District versus Canyon, we highlighted the board and their supporters’ assertions to a reporter that some people who reside in the District aren’t really a part of the “Canyon”, and as such, their views don’t matter as much as those who actually reside in the Canyon.

We are appalled by this viewpoint, but it may help explain the entitled behaviors the Trustees and their supporters continue to display. The recall petitions cite three specific examples of board infractions, but that by no means is a comprehensive accounting of the Trustees’ continued patterns of illegal behavior. (The recall examples were limited by a 200-word limit set by the Recall Act.) Let’s look at how their patterns of illegal behavior continue:

  • They continue to ignore Montana Law that stipulates they must encourage and afford ample opportunity for the public to participate in decisions. They do this by denying residents meaningful opportunities to participate in decisions during board meetings.
  • All five Trustees omitted key emails when responding to an official public document records request, the contents of which would prove counter to their very public assertions.
  • They misuse their public office to send emails to a District-wide email list that residents were told would be used in emergency situations only. They use this list to campaign against the recall and to promote their candidates for the upcoming election. This not only provides an unfair advantage, it is also illegal.
  • They hold their supporters to different standards of behavior than they do residents who are not their supporters. For example, when a Safety Coalition member speaks at a board meeting, a time keeper shouts out the second the 3-minute time limit has been reached. We are expected to cite our names and addresses and stand where the board dictates; however, when their supporters start shouting at board meetings from their seats, interrupt others, neglect to state their names and addresses, and generally behave in disruptive ways, it takes a suggestion from the audience (a Safety Coalition member) to get Chairman Conn to ask them to follow protocol.
  • There is no meaningful mechanism or protocol for residents to ask questions of the board during board meetings. Sometimes Chairman Conn will allow questions, but most of the time he won’t, and it depends on the subject matter at hand. When he doesn’t like a topic, he shuts the speaker down.
  • The structure of board meetings prevents any timely dialogue from happening. Residents may only comment about agenda items BEFORE they are discussed. Since we don’t know how the discussion will go, and sometimes don’t know the topic based on a vaguely worded agenda item, it makes it next to impossible to provide any timely comments. Couple that with the fact that residents are not allowed to participate during actual discussion of agenda items—we cannot ask questions, provide input, or share our concerns—and public participation is completely stonewalled.

This board continues to operate outside of the dictates of Montana law and they have not changed their behaviors, even to this day. They still contend that they have done nothing wrong, even though the Sheriff’s Department recommended prosecution following an independent investigation into the board’s behavior.

We urge you to vote “Yes” to recall this board and stop their pattern of outrageous, illegal behavior.

Decision Making Without Regard for Public Input

For a clear example of how this Board’s decision-making has occurred without public participation or knowledge–in violation of the law and to the detriment of the District– look at the effort to find a chief to fill the position vacated when this Board drove Chief Astrom out.

The Board’s Failed Attempt to Recruit a Chief

In May, 2013, just after Chief Astrom resigned, the Board interviewed a candidate for the position of Chief. In late June, Mike Conn announced in court that the Board was very close to hiring this person. Trustee McKee had even asked the candidate to be prepared to testify in court on the Board’s behalf. (See the email here.)

Without any public input whatsoever, the Board engaged their attorney in negotiations with this candidate for a two-year contract that specified a salary to the tune of $55,000 a year—with additional compensation for the candidate’s fire equipment and excluding any facility maintenance or administrative work.

The Trustees racked up $1531.25 in fees, that were paid with Fire Department funds for the attorney to prepare a contract for the new Chief.  The Trustee’s were ready and eager to sign this contract without any public comment on the matter and without the public’s knowledge!

However, in early July, the Trustees suddenly rescinded their offer to this candidate without explanation. In just a few short weeks, Mike Conn apparently decided he could not tolerate his own hand-selected chief, a disturbing trend, given his conflict with Chief Astrom. Unfortunately, Conn had already given this candidate a pager, and his chief-in-waiting had responded to calls in our District. He had provided valuable materials, services, and expertise to the Department for which he was led to believe he would receive reimbursement. (See the candidate’s  email invoice here and later email regarding lack of payment and his opinion of Mike Conn here.) Conn then refused to reimburse the candidate’s expenses. Not surprisingly, the Board never revealed this fiasco to the public.

Illegal Appointment of Trustee as Chief

After the hasty dismissal of their first candidate, the Board tapped Trustee Denny Guentzel to step in as Chief. Guentzel served illegally as both Chief and Trustee for several months until the Gallatin County Attorney intervened. Instead of stepping down as a Trustee, Guenzel chose instead to resign as Chief, a particularly ironic move, after his public chastising of Chief Astrom for his resignation after 11 years of serving!

In their inimitable wisdom, the Board decided to appoint 3 trustees and a 4th volunteer to rotate as “acting chief”. This action defies logic. If it is illegal for one person to act as Chief while also serving as a Trustee, how can it be legal for 3 people to act as Chief while also being Trustees? Again, this was a decision that was announced, with no public discussion or public input allowed.

Appointment of Perry Shane as Chief

Then, in January, 2013 the Board announced, again with no opportunity for public participation in the decision, that Perry Shane was being appointed as Chief. Proper notice was not given on the agenda (the agenda simply listed “Discussion of the Appointment of an Interim Chief”).

Perry Shane is the man that the Board had introduced as the new Training Officer just a few months earlier; and then quickly removed him from that role a few weeks later with no explanation. Further, this is the same individual who was deemed by Trustee McKee to be unfit to be an Incident Commander, because he was unable to operate a radio, and unable to effectively assess a scene.

Total Recall

The ongoing series of back room decision making and last-minute reversals is compelling evidence that these Trustees have no regard for the law, which requires proper notice, and public participation in decisions of importance to the District. It shows a Board so desperate to appear in control that they do not use sound, rational, reasonable thought processes in their decisions. As a result, the Trustees have put our District and our volunteers at risk. The Sheriff has investigated these activities and has recommended that criminal charges be filed against these Trustees. It is our responsibility now to recall this Board and replace them with Trustees who behave ethically, respect the law and protect our District’s financial and human resources.

For additional information and further insight into these behind-the-scenes dealings, we will be posting the Trustee’s emails obtained under Montana Public Records Law. These documents chronicle illegal communications, back room contract negotiations and last-minute, unexplained reversals in their decisions and shameful disrespect for our volunteer fire fighters.