Ethics committee deems complaint against Tryon unsubstantiated

The city’s ethics committee heard a complaint against Commissioner Rick Tryon during a Nov. 13 meeting.

The committee found the complaints to be unsubstantiated based on the evidence presented and available information within the scope of their jurisdiction.

Jasmine Taylor filed the ethics complaint during the Oct. 3 City Commission meeting.

Taylor, a local Democratic activist, alleged that Tryon has violated the city’s ethics code for his association with Stray Moose Productions, a local company owned by Phil Faccenda; and for publishing articles on E-City Beat, a local right leaning blog affiliated with Stray Moose and Faccenda.

Taylor said that based on Tryon’s publicly available profiles, “it appears that an employment relationship exists between Tryon and Stray Moose Productions, which logically extends to E-City Beat. E-City Beat allows for paid advertising on their website, and likely generates income for its owners.”

Ethics complaint filed against Tryon

She said that while Tryon retains first amendment rights, as a public official he is held to the city’s ethics code.

She said it violates the provision of the ethics code that prohibits an “officer or employee of the city from having an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction or professional activity which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or her governmental duties,” and “no officer or employee shall act in his or her official capacity in any matter where he or she, a member of his or her immediate family, or any business organization in which he or she has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his or her objectivity or independence or judgment, or substantially conflict with the proper discharge of officer or employee’s governmental duties” and “no officer or employee shall undertake any private employment or service which might prejudice his or her independent judgment in the exercise of his or her official duties.”

She argues in her complaint that Tryon’s published content on the site could drive viewership and in turn, advertising revenue.

“Tryon cannot simultaneously act independently and objectively while writing about city issues on a blog for which he works, and about issues on which he is voting,” Taylor wrote in her complaint.

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Tryon did not attend the ethics committee hearing, but wrote in a written response to the complaint that he’s a part-time employee of Stray Moose Productions but is not an employee of E-City Beat, only a volunteer contributor.

Asked for documentation proving that he receives no financial gain from E-City Beat, Tryon responded to the city attorney’s office that he would not submit any private, personal financial tax or other documents to the city “based on speculation and innuendo contained in an ethics complaint which contains allegations completely outside of my official duties as a city commission.”

Jordan Crosby was retained by the city as the attorney for the ethics committee to offer the body legal opinions and advice.

In a review of Taylor’s complaint for the board, Crosby wrote that while Taylor asks the committee to conduct a full investigation of Tryon’s employment relationship with Stray Moose and E-City Beat, that’s outside the scope of the committee’s jurisdiction.

Tryon argued in his written response that “publicly expressing my views on topics of interest to the community in no way presents a ‘substantial conflict’ with the discharge of my governmental duties, even though those views may be in conflict with the complainant’s views or the views of other citizens.”

In his written response, Tryon wrote “this complainant has endeavored to turn the intent of the ethics code around to include matters outside of the performance of official public duties. Doing so would result in the use of subjective, far-ranging, unrelated and loosely defined criteria that stifle public discourse rather than objective, well defined standards for determining ethics code compliance. Neither the complainant nor the City of Great Falls has any right or legal authority to ‘investigate’ the financial business affairs of any private citizen or interest in Great Falls based on speculation and innuendo contained in an ethics complaint. The complainant specifically names private local business interests and individuals in the complaint and those entities have a right to privacy. They should not be subjected to a public inquiry or ethics hearing.”

In her legal analysis for the committee, Crosby wrote that a business interest is ownership or control of more than 10 percent of E-City Beat or that Tryon has undertaken private employment with the blog.

Crosby wrote that no evidence had been presented to support that claim.

During their discussion, ethics committee members said they struggled with the lack of available information.

Alternate committee member Justin Grohs recused himself from the discussion and vote since he has business before the commission.

Seana Westcarr-Gray, committee member, said the city code also references professional activities and services. She said that though Tryon was contributing to the blog voluntarily, “there is a service component, I think, if you are regularly contributing to the blog.”

Crosby said Westcarr-Gray was correct in her reading of the code, but professional activity isn’t defined so it was up to the committee, but that it was a “slippery slope” in looking for ethical violations in private lives based on aspirations in the code rather than specific requirements or prohibited actions.

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Westcarr-Gray said she didn’t think Tryon was an employee of E-City Beat though his contributions constituted professional activity, but she hadn’t seen evidence that it had affected his ability to discharge his official duties.

Taylor also cited a section of the city ethics code stating that its ethical standards “shall inspire and stimulate each officer and employee to: affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative and practical attitude toward urban affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant; be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships so that each public servant may merit the respect and confidence of elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.”

She wrote in her complaint that Tryon’s posts on E-City Beat do not meet those standards.

“Even more concerning than Tryon’s more broad discriminatory statements is Tryon’s consistent targeting and harassment of local citizens that disagree with him. Tryon has continually and consistently used E-City Beat to disparage and humiliate citizens that disagree with him. Many of these citizens have never run for public office, nor would they be considered a ‘public figure’ by an interpretation of the definition,” Taylor wrote.

David Sneddon, committee member, said that “there’s more to this and there’s some gray areas.”

He said that some of Tryon’s comments and posts included in the complaint seemed benign, but some were “very personal,” but “we lack the capability to receive more information, acquire more information.”

As to the question of employment, Sneddon said they didn’t know definitively either way and that “there’s key pieces here that we just do not know.”

Jordyn Rogers, committee chair, said that the claims were “too speculative, no matter if we disagree with the statements made,” and that the committee couldn’t make determinations regarding First Amendment rights of public officials.

The last time a formal ethics complaint was filed against a commissioner was in 2019 and because the complaint was against the city manager’s immediate supervisor, staff referred the complaint to the ethics committee for evaluation and determination.

In that case, Jeni Dodd made a verbal complaint during a commission meeting regarding then Commissioner Tracy Houck’s involvement with the local women’s march. She followed it up with a written complaint delivered to then City Attorney Sara Sexe.

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At the time, city code only allows the city manager to refer matters to the committee and staff is asking to change that language to also allow the city attorney to refer matters to the committee for situations when the city manager may be unable or unwilling to refer the issue.

Commissioners modified those rules in 2019.

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The city ethics committee was established in 2017 and stemmed from a series of conflict of interest issues related to the Community Development Block Grant allocation cycle that year. The city has also revamped the CDBG process, created conflict disclosure forms and a training requirement for anyone on city boards or commissions in an effort to prevent future occurrences.

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In 2021, Dodd made an ethics complaint against city staff regarding the proposed national heritage area. The ethics committee found those complaints to be unsubstantiated.