City ethics committee finds complaints regarding heritage area unsubstantiated

The city ethics committee met this week to review a complaint alleging multiple ethics violations by city staff in regards to the early efforts to explore the establishment of the national heritage area in the region.

The 3-member committee found that all of the complaints were unsubstantiated. The committee is a volunteer board appointed by the City Commission.

The complaint, filed by Jeni Dodd in August, also levied ethics complaints against former County Commissioner Jane Weber. The county attorney told The Electric that he’d referred the complaint to the Montana Attorney General’s Office for review.

During the ethics hearing, city staff said the county attorney had notified them that the AG’s office had declined to pursue the complaint.

The city ethics committee dealt only with the complaints lodged against city employees and officials.

[READ: Ethics complaint, city responses and associated documents]

Dodd’s complaint alleged that city staff violated state and city ethics codes by providing staff time and resources to what has become Big Sky County National Heritage Area nonprofit during the earlier planning stages in 2015 and 2016. Before the group established its own nonprofit, the city held funds for the efforts to explore a heritage area, which Dodd alleged was also an ethics violation.

She also alleged that former City Commissioner Bill Bronson and Weber violated ethics rules by traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with Montana’s congressional delegation.

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City Attorney Sara Sexe summarized the city’s position and her legal opinion for the committee and said that the idea of the NHA was initiated through the city planning department as early as 2013 when it was included in the city’s growth policy, which was adopted by the City Commission.

The joint City-County Historic Preservation Commission included the adoption of an NHA in their goals beginning in 2016 and the Great Falls Tourism Business Improvement District board also included adoption of the NHA in their goals.

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Sexe said that through her office’s investigation of Dodd’s complaint, city staff believed the NHA was a city sponsored initiative and that they were acting within their role as city employees.

The City Commission adopted a resolution in 2019 to allow the city to act as a passthrough for a grant to support the heritage area effort that would be handled by the Great Falls Development Authority.

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When it adopted the resolution, the commission “specifically indicated its support of the heritage organization,” according to a November 2020 memo from Sexe to City Manager Greg Doyon analyzing the Dodd ethics complaint.

Identifying the heritage area in multiple city documents and the 2019 resolution, Doyon wrote was indirect and direct support as a “commission-recognized potential benefit to the city of the heritage organization’s designation. Actions taken by city representatives in furtherance of this support were taken with the direct or tacit approval of the City Commission.”

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City staff provided some staff time and resources in developing maps for the heritage area group and holding funds in a separate account and allowing the group to use city meetings rooms. Typically, the city charges fees for mapping services and room rentals, though city-sanctions events and meetings get discounts or no fee under certain criteria, which City Planning Director Craig Raymond said was met for the heritage area meetings before the group became a nonprofit.

Staff said they didn’t maintain separate records on their time or resources for the heritage area since they believed it was part of their normal duties. Sexe said that to go back to attempt to calculate what the group should reimburse the city for those services would be very time consuming and challenging since it had been so long and involved former employees.

Sexe said her office found no violations of state law regarding the ethics complaints, but if the committee found that the commission hadn’t supported the heritage area, there could be technical violations but that the city manager’s office had addressed those internally to clarify the process for charging fees when assisting outside groups to prevent any future issues.

On the whole, Sexe said, the “issued have been effectively resolved.”

During the hearing, Dodd said she believes the city plays favorites and that she doesn’t believe the claim that staff was supporting a city sanctioned program.

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Dodd said that she opposes the NHA, but her complaint was specifically about the way city government works.

“I’ve complained about a lot of city problems,” she said.

Her concern, she said, is about using city resources and time to support a nonprofit for an effort that wasn’t approved by the commission or voted on by the people.

Group defines region’s national significance as quest for National Heritage Area designation continues

Dodd and others have mounted opposition to the NHA over the last year or so and argue that it would restrict private property rights, but locals pushing the effort, those from other NHAs nationwide, National Park Service officials have said on multiple occasions that the designation does not grant control over private property.

There are now 55 NHAs nationwide, as President Donald Trump approved six in 2019.

A 2020 Congressional Research Service report reiterated an earlier report addressing that many laws establishing NHAs specifically address concerns regarding private property rights and don’t typically allow for the federal acquisition of land.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that he “wholeheartedly disagrees” with the allegations and that “it’s disheartening. The question of one’s ethics is extraordinarily significant.”

He said that the mention of the NHA in the growth policy “is very direct support” to participate in and support the effort for staff.

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Raymond said that the actions taken by staff were not designed to benefit any specific individual, city department or government or the NHA itself, but to benefit the community on the whole.

He said that the city works with outside entities regularly to do things to benefit the community.

Raymond said that to find any of the complaints substantiated would have a “chilling effect” on how the city operates to support community growth.

Robin Beatty, ethics committee member, said in finding one of the claims of a violation for using staff time and resources unsubstantiated that she appreciates the public concern about the input in the process. She said that the the issue could likely be resolved by better communication by the city on major initiatives such as the heritage area, or by better attention from residents on what may seem like mundane issues as they go through the process.

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But, Beatty said, it didn’t make any of the city staff’s actions an ethics violation.

She said that there was clear direction through city documents that the exploring the heritage area was a city goal and supported activity.

“I think the growth policy is one of the best examples,” Beatty said. “I’m not even remotely surprised” that staff believed that was area where they should dedicate effort.

Carmen Roberts, ethics committee member, said that the growth policy and heritage area as a stated goal in other city documents make it appropriate to use city resources to explore options starting with community planning and mapping since it wasn’t a formally formed idea then.

Roberts said it makes sense that city resources would be used to develop the idea and continue bringing it to the community.

On the issue of charging fees, Roberts said that she appreciated the city manager’s office addressing that process internally but that it wasn’t an individual benefit for any city employee so it was not an ethical violation.