The ethics complaint lodged by Stevensville resident (now council person) Dempsey Vick on October 24, 2019 against Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey was dismissed by Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) Jeffrey Mangan on December 2nd. The complaint alleged that mayor Dewey improperly utilized public time and facilities to solicit support or opposition for candidates running in the Town of Stevensville’s municipal elections.
Specifically, Vick alleged that Dewey violated Mont. Code Ann. §13-35-226(4), which states that: A public employee may not solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue while on the job or at the place of employment.
When interviewed by the COPP, Vick stated that he recalled having around two or three meetings with Mayor Dewey pertaining to open seats on the Stevensville Town Council. Vick made it clear that Mayor Dewey spent these meetings actively encouraging him to seek a Town Council seat, by either running for election to an open seat or seeking appointment to a vacated seat. Vick stated that each meeting between himself and Mayor Dewey occurred in either late May or early June.
In Dewey’s November 6 response to the complaint, he confirmed the complaint’s assertion that he had met with Vick prior to Stevensville’s November 5, 2019 municipal General election, and that he additionally attended a separate meeting with two other individuals, whom he identified as Mason Buchanan and Trenis Hindle.
“Contrary to the allegations submitted by Mr. Vick,” Mayor Dewey wrote, “meetings with candidates or others were always sought out by those individuals, and at no time did I use a meeting in my office to support or dissuade someone from seeking appointment or running” for municipal office in the Town of Stevensville.
Both Buchanan and Hindle confirmed Mayor Dewey’s version of events.
When interviewed by the COPP, Hindle said he did attend a meeting in City Hall with Mayor Dewey regarding open Town Council positions along with Mason Buchanan but that he, not Mayor Dewey, had requested the meeting. He went on to state that the meeting’s primary purpose was to discuss the recently vacated Town Council seats and the process for filling them. Hindle stated that Dewey did not encourage or discourage either himself or Buchanan from seeking appointment to a vacant Town Council seat. While Hindle stated some discussion was had about the Town Council seat or seats up for election in Stevensville’s municipal general election for 2019, the elections were not a primary talking point and Dewey did not encourage or discourage anyone from running as a candidate for election to the Town Council.
Buchanan, in his interview with the COPP, said that he, not Mayor Dewey, had requested and initiated his meeting. He said that he had been encouraged by outside individuals, not including Mayor Dewey, to seek appointment to one of the vacated Stevensville Town Council positions, so he asked Mayor Dewey to meet with him to discuss why the positions had been vacated, what the process was for filling them, and what exactly a job on the Town Council would entail. He stated that Mayor Dewey did not encourage or discourage him from seeking appointment to a vacated Town Council seat, nor were the Stevensville municipal elections or the idea of him running as a candidate for an elected Town Council position in Stevensville’s municipal general election really even brought up.
Vick’s complaint also contends Mayor Dewey was working in a capacity of both Mayor of the Town of Stevensville as well as being additionally compensated to perform a number of other administrative tasks on behalf of the town.
“Before attempting to make any determinations as to whether Mayor Dewey’s alleged activity constituted ‘support for or opposition to… the nomination or election of any person to public office’ in the Town of Stevensville, it must first be decided if Mayor Dewey qualifies as a public employee as mentioned in this statute,” Commissioner Mangan wrote in his decision.
Mangan finds that Mayor Dewey cannot be found guilty of violating the specific statute invoked because it specifically refers to the actions of “public employees.” Mangan notes that the Mayor is a “public official,” not a “public employee.”
“Being an ‘elected officer of a local government, Mayor Dewey would exclusively be defined as a public officer when performing any duties or responsibilities included within his official Mayoral capacity,” he wrote. He notes that in this case, the Stevensville Town Council voted 2 to 1 to pass a motion approving additional compensation to Mayor Dewey so that he would temporarily absorb the Finance Officer and Town Clerk duties in his role as Mayor.
“Under both Mont. Code Ann. §7-5-4102(1)(h), and the Stevensville Municipal Code, Mayor Dewey would have continued to operate only in his capacity as Mayor when fulfilling the Town Clerk or Finance Officer duties because those positions were formally prescribed to him by the Town Council as an addition to his Mayoral duties. Mayor Dewey existed only as a public officer, not a public employee,” wrote Mangan.
In a related matter recently presented to his office by Councilor-elect Bob Michalson, Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright independently concluded that Mayor Dewey’s acceptance of additional compensation in the amount of $25.00 per hour to handle the functions of the Finance Officer and Town Clerk did not constitute multiple public employment. While Mayor Dewey received “a temporary increase in the Mayor’s compensation,” wrote Fulbright, “it did not create a situation in which he [Mayor Dewey] was receiving salaries from two separate public employment positions.”
“In other words, in the determination of the Ravalli County Attorney, Mayor Dewey held only one formal role in the Town of Stevensville’s municipal government, the office of Mayor, despite also handling the Finance Officer and Town Clerk duties. Based on a review of all the evidence provided and an analysis of relevant statutes and definitions, it becomes clear that Mayor Dewey would be classified only as a public officer, not as a public employee. The tenants of Mont. Code Ann. §13-35-226(4) do not apply to public officers; as the statute clearly states, it exists as a limitation for public employees only. As Mayor Dewey cannot be classified as a public employee, his alleged actions were not bound by the statute referenced by the complainant in this matter,” wrote Mangan.
Mangan then dismissed the second allegation concerning violation of MCA 2-2-121(3) which does apply to “public officers” because it is not in the jurisdiction of the COPP to enforce that law.
“Jurisdiction over alleged violations of this statute by local government officials such as Mayor Dewey is clearly delineated to the County Attorney of the county where the local government is located, §2-2-144, MCA. Because Mayor Dewey currently serves as a public officer of a local government located in Ravalli County, Ravalli County Attorney would have jurisdiction over complaints of this nature made against Mayor Dewey,” he wrote. “Montana’s Code of Ethics clearly and obviously provides that responsibility to the County Attorney.”
The complaint made to the COPP by Michalson about the Mayor holding two paid jobs was also dismissed, leading Michalson to take his complaint to the County Attorney. In that case, after dismissing the complaint based on the facts and the law, the County Attorney noted that even though he was declining to file the complaint, other legal remedies could be pursued. According to statute, he writes, “the person alleging a violation of this part may file a civil action in district court seeking a civil fine of not less than $50 or more than $1,000. In an action filed under this subsection, the court may assess the costs and attorney fees against the person bringing the charges if the court determines that a violation did not occur. The court may impose sanctions if the court determines that the action was frivolous or intended for harassment.”
Vick could not be reached for comment on Monday in time for publication.