Former fair board member supports decision to disband group

Following the coverage of the Cascade County Commission’s decision to dissolve the Expo Park Advisory Board, a former board member contacted The Electric to say she resigned from the board over the board’s interaction with Expo Park staff.

Kelly Audet served on the board and had been away for a few months due to a shoulder surgery. She said that when she returned to the board, Expo Park staffers were sitting in the corner.

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Audet wrote to The Electric that she argued with other board members about Expo Park staff sitting in the corner and that other board members “didn’t allow her to participated at all. Eventually that led to her not being able to attend the meetings at all. Tell me, how do you run an efficient board without the input from the manager that runs the very thing you’re advising on?”

Audet said it was the board who removed staff from the fair board meetings. Multiple other fair board members have said in multiple public meetings that it was a commission decision to pull staff from the board meetings.

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Audet wrote that “this board got away from the fact that they were an ‘advisory’ board,” though the rest of the current board has argued that they were trying to meet the expectations set forth by the board’s bylaws and job description.

The board’s current bylaws, as approved by County Commissioners in January 2015, state that the board “will work with, beside ExpoPark’s staff, public works and Board of County Commissioners. Members of the advisory board do not have the authority to direct the actions of ExpoPark’s staff.”

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The bylaws also state that a board objective is to create “a conduit between the Board of County Commissioners/management and the facility users, community members and interested parties that allows for the acquisition and sharing of information unencumbered by status or authority.”

The fair board members have been vocal in asking for financial information, which as a public facility operated by a local government, is information government by public information laws.

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Some of what the fair board has asked for is expenses from the Montana State Fair. The Electric has also requested those numbers over the years and not received it until this year.

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Audet said that fair board members didn’t understand government accounting, “and nobody-including me who worked with it for 30 years-could explain it to them.”

Audet worked for the city finance office.

The fair board’s bylaws, as approved by county commissioners in 2015, state, “comprehensive financial reports for the facility will be provided to the advisory board and [county commission] no later than seven days prior to the regular meeting, for review and recommendations back to the [county commission].

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Audet said in her email that the county is audited by an outside firm and auditors would have found irregularities. Fair board members said in the commission meeting that it was in part their efforts that called attention to the issues that led to the firing of former Expo Park manager Lisa Bracco.

Outside auditors check to make sure correct amounts are paid for invoices, can verify checks have been issued, deposits have been posted and correct amounts are recorded, but are sometimes limited in what they can catch, according to multiple officials within the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, which includes internal auditors.

Internal auditors, or city staff, catch problems with numbers of items being purchased, unauthorized purchases and other purchasing irregularities, as well as how money is received.

Internal auditors were involved in uncovering problems in the Aging Services division about a decade ago that led to process changes; issues at Expo Park under Lisa Bracco; as well as issues at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office that led to multiple people being charged criminally.

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Audet said she believes the county made the right decision in disbanding the fair board.

Commissioners said they will instead assemble a “resource team” to give advice on the fair and Expo Park operations.

In an April 30, 2020 email to staff in the commission office, which was copied to Leanne Hall, fair board chair, Audet said she would finish her term on the board but did not want to continue serving.

In her resignation email, she said that the issues between the board and Expo Park staff “could have worked this out in a more eloquent way.”

In the Oct. 1 meeting when commissioners voted unanimously to disband the fair board, Commissioner Don Ryan there were instances of behavior from some board members that made commissioners think they shouldn’t be board members. He said that instead of singling those people out, he thought it was best to disband the board and start over.

The Electric asked whether the county had a policy regarding removing board members, as the City of Great Falls does, and Ryan said there wasn’t a county policy, but follows the state law addressing a standard of conduct.

Ryan said most board have bylaws for removal, usually for non-performance or lack of attendance.

The existing bylaws for the fair board state, “in the event fair advisory board members feel removal of a board member is justified, they may make a recommendation to the [county commission] with a two-thirds vote of the advisory board. The final decision shall be made by the [county commission] after the member has had the opportunity to be heard by the [county commission].”

The board and county commission have not used that provision of the bylaws in at least the last two years.

The bylaws also have an attendance requirement and if a fair board member misses more than three consecutive unexcused meetings, the board may make a recommendation to the [county commission] by a two-thirds vote to replace that member.

Ryan told The Electric in an email, “We have never had an issue with an advisory volunteer board.  Jim Larson was on a board for county roads years ago and received a letter thanking them for their service , but the board was not longer necessary. He believes it was because a few board members thought they were running the department.”