With two 5-0 votes of the Libby City Council Monday night, the city closed a case in which Montana’s former Commissioner of Political Practices determined that state campaign finance laws were violated during Libby’s 2013 mayoral election.
Meanwhile, a related case filed against the commissioner’s office by six defendants in the first case will continue, their attorney says.
In the first vote, the City Council agreed to a settlement proposed in mid-July by Jeffrey Mangan, Montana’s current Commissioner of Political Practices, concerning Magill v. Reintsma, City of Libby, et al.
Arlen Magill of Libby filed the complaint in September 2014, originally against former City Attorney James Reintsma, alleging interference in the mayoral race between incumbent Doug Roll and Allen Olsen.
Upon review of the complaint, Jonathan Motl, the Commissioner of Political Practices at the time, added to the defendants the City of Libby, Doug Roll and five members of the 2013 Libby City Council — Robin Benson, Barbara Desch, Vicky Lawrence, Bill Bischoff and Peggy Williams.
According to a background document accompanying the proposed settlement, at issue was “the use of the City of Libby’s name, personnel time, and tax dollars spent by the Mayor and named Council Members to affect the outcome of an election.”
As the election neared, Reintsma reignited the question of Olsen’s residency, first in a memo and then in the threat of legal action. Reintsma backed off six days before the election, which Olsen lost by 13 votes.
In the second vote Monday night, the City Council agreed to a resolution establishing a “Transparency in Government” week to take place the first week of June from 2018 to 2021. The resolution was one of the stipulations set forth in the agreement. Timed to occur prior to filing deadlines for candidates of local and municipal offices, the week’s purpose “should be to provide information on how local and municipal government works,” the agreement states.
As a result of the two votes, and according to the terms of the agreement, “the Commissioner agrees not to pursue any further administrative or court proceedings” against the defendants, and the city acknowledges a “Summary of Facts and Finding” Motl issued on May 12, 2015, in which he determined the defendants “failed to comply with certain campaign finance and practices laws and administrative regulations.”
City Council member Brian Zimmerman said via email that the agreement and resolution are a “win-win for the city.”
Accepting the agreement “lets us put another negative for the city in the closed-out-and-put-it-behind-us column,” he wrote, while “the resolution is good for the part of being transparent with the people of the city and showing them different ways that local government works.”
Williams, who sits on the City Council as its senior member, abstained from both votes. She said she disagrees with Motl’s findings and would “refrain from further comment (as) it continues to be an ongoing legal issue.”
That ongoing legal issue is a lawsuit Williams and the five defendants other than the city of Libby and Reintsma have filed in Lincoln County District Court.
Jim Brown, the Helena-based attorney representing them, said via email that “my clients have challenged (Motl’s) conclusions of law contained in the administrative decision on the grounds that (his) administrative decision contains gross misapplications of both state and federal law, namely constitutional jurisprudence as to what is election activity.”
“The settlement between the city and the (Commissioner of Political Practices) should have no legal impact on the court case that has been filed by my clients,” he continued, adding that the case is on hold awaiting a judge’s decision on a motion to transfer the case from Lincoln County to Lewis and Clark County.
Mangan said via email that his office’s goal “was to put forward an agreement that ultimately benefited the citizens and community of Libby, rather than protracted, expensive and likely divisive litigation.”
“We are hopeful the ‘Transparency in Government’ week will assist in ensuring issues such as those that transpired do not happen again ... for the good of the community moving forward,” he continued.
Brown and Mangan both were dialed-in to Monday’s meeting.
Magill, who sits on the Police Commission and is running for City Council, is thankful for how the City Council voted.
“Libby is now safe from legal action the state could have sought through the decision and finding of facts in my complaint,” he said via email.