City Commission has yet to prioritize crime task force recommendations, continues discussion

City Commissioners continued their discussion of the crime task force’s recommendations during their Feb. 15 work session but didn’t give staff guidance on what they considered priorities among those items.

Commissioner spent the bulk of the discussion on the recommendations trying to determine whether they should set broad policy and leave it to staff to make decisions on what specific to implement or to take specific action based on the recommendations that the commission directed the task force to bring to them.

Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton updated a spreadsheet of the recommendations with information on the responsible department, whether commission action was required, the estimated timeframe and costs.

The items are broken into those that can be supported with the existing budget, those that will impact the budget and those that are unfunded.

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City Manager Greg Doyon said that even those that can be supported in the existing budget will have an impact since it will take staff time away from other tasks, potentially reducing the quality of work.

He said that they can continue to triage the caseloads for police and the Municipal Court. They could do it more effectively and robustly, Doyon said, but that would take more staff and resources.

The items that are classified as impacting the budget, “they’re not really funded,” Doyon said.

City Commission discusses crime task force recommendations; has not yet set priorities

Two weeks ago, commissioners went through a similar spreadsheet and they decided they’d go through them and pick things they didn’t want to pursue so staff could then focus on what they did want to prioritize and then develop funding strategies.

Commissioner Joe McKenney, who took office in January, said that he had started going through the list to choose his priorities but then thought that he was acting as a manager.

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“That’s not my job as a commissioner. My job as commissioner is to set policy,” McKenney said.

McKenney said he had drafted broad policy recommendations to address the big picture.

“Those policy recommendations, to be honest, are going to require funding,” he said.

The recommendations were:

  • Enforcement, the need for more officers and to work with other agencies
  • Judiciary, the need for more judges: “I’m not saying how we get more judges, I’m saying this is a policy statement.”
  • Penalties, more jail space: “I’m not saying how we do this, but we certainly want jail space available for the repeat offenders.”
  • Support community resources for addiction and mental health issues

“These address symptoms,” McKenney said. “We don’t really solve anything.”

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Commissioner Rick Tryon, who pushed the commission to create the last force in January 2021, said that it’s useful to look at the bigger picture, but that at the beginning of the process, the commission directed the task force to come up with specific, actionable recommendations.

Tryon said now they have the recommendations from the task force and the commission should take action.

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“The policy has to be more than just we need more cops,” Tryon said. “We’ve talked this thing to death now. I think the time for deliberation and talking about other ideas is over, I think now we need to begin to respect the work of the task force and what they did and either take action on these recommendations or not.”

Commissioner Susan Wolff said two weeks ago that they could ask staff to give three or four items that would help their efforts in addressing crime.

At that meeting, Tryon said that’s what the task force spent the last year doing.

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During the Feb. 15 meeting, Wolff said that she asked Newton for those items and he gave her some, but she didn’t say which they were.

Every year during the budget process, city departments submit lists of personnel, equipment or items they need.

It’s considered the over and above list for items that would be in addition to their level funded operational budget.

For the last several years, those budget requests have included additional staffing for police, fire, legal and Municipal Court. Many of those requests have gone unfunded by the commission.

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Wolff said that there was too much information in the spreadsheet to take action on and that they needed to break it down further.

“I think we’re getting too much into the details, where maybe we don’t belong,” Wolff said.

McKenney said that there are some items they can act on, but they aren’t long term solutions.

“If we think that there’s a long term problem in this community and we want to do something about, we need policy statements,” McKenney said. “We’re not going to get into the weeds and tell the experts in the room how to get there.”

Some of the recommendations raise jurisdictional questions.

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One recommendation is to revise city code to make jail a sentencing option for a first theft offense.

In 2017, the Legislature overhauled the criminal code taking jail off the table as a punishment for a number of misdemeanor crimes.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad said he wasn’t sure the city could, or should, change to code to send people to jail for an offense that state law doesn’t allow jail as a punishment.

Also, if the city sends people to jail on city code violations, the city is responsible for that cost, rather than the state or county when people are jailed on state law violations, according to GFPD and Municipal Court.

City Attorney Jeff Hindoien told The Electric that his office is reviewing that recommendation to provide an assessment to the commission.

He said it does raise the issue of whether a municipality can “adopt an ordinance prohibiting a type of conduct already prohibited by state law and provide for a more severe punishment for violation of that ordinance than would be allowed for the state law violation. As a general proposition, it is not uncommon for municipalities to adopt ordinances that have state law analogs, but we’ll need to assess the different penalty concept.”

Hindoien said that to his knowledge there wasn’t any line item in the budget for the cost of sending people to jail on municipal code violations, so that would also be a consideration for the commission.

Another recommendation is for the city to release the sentencing the prosecution records of local prosecutors and judges.

The city only has jurisdiction over the prosecutors in the city’s legal department.

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The Municipal Court judge is elected and the City Commission, or city staff, do not have have authority over that position.

The county attorney is also an elected position and he has authority over prosecutors in his office, not the city.

District Court and Justice Court judges are also elected and the city has no authority over those positions.

Mayor Bob Kelly said that they’re looking for guidance from the professionals.

“I look to you guys to tell us what would help your mission going forward.” Kelly said.

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Tryon said they didn’t need to micromanage the staff but that they have specific actionable items in front of them that the task force spent months developing.

“We can’t blow this off,” he said.

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad said that he “may be captain obvious” but the discussion felt like his freshman year of teaching and that there are main objectives and under those a list of how to achieve those objectives.

“I did feel like this was micromanaging when this first came out,” Bolstad said.

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As an elected judge, he can’t take direction from the task force or the commision but that they had already used some of the ideas from the task force recommendations.

Hinebauch said that the spreadsheet included about 18 recommendations that don’t need commission action and can be handled by staff.

There are about 16 that need commission action, he said, so they should focus on those and let staff work on the others.

Newton, GFPD chief, said that even those listed in the spreadsheet that can be supported in the current budget will strain the city’s existing resources.

“There’s a cost to all of this,” he said.

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The city is already doing a number of the tasks suggested by the task force, particularly those pertaining to the GFPD.

Newton said that some of the recommendations they haven’t implemented are commission driven.

He said that the group was getting progress on decisions and “it’s been a long painful process for all of us.”

Doyon said that he had hoped the commission could get through the list and start prioritizing options, but that staff will break off the chunk that they believe require commission action.

“There still has to be some prioritization,” Doyon said, especially going into the annual budget process, to know what the commission wants to fund.

“Your budget is your greatest policy statement,” Doyon said.