At the first meeting of the year for the Stevensville Town Council, Mayor Brandon Dewey read a December 28, 2020 letter from the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office, signed by County Sheriff Steve Holton and County Attorney Bill Fulbright.
The letter stated, in part:
“As you are likely aware, a County Sheriff’s law enforcement authority in the state of Montana extends over the entire county, including all municipalities and townships within the county. While custom may allow for a different arrangement, the primary duty of enforcement falls on the Sheriff. Accordingly, this is notification that, effective immediately, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office will assume jurisdiction and primary investigation of all felony crimes committed from this date forward within the Stevensville Town limits…”
The letter stated that, due to the staffing level of the Stevensville Police Department, the county has responded to calls for service on crimes within Stevensville and has retained primary jurisdiction and investigation of those calls, which will continue. Reports of felony crimes in Stevensville received by the 911 Center will be dispatched to Sheriff’s Office personnel. If a Stevensville Police officer also responds, RCSO will direct the response and the investigation. Stevensville Police Department will be required to report all felony crimes to the RCSO for transfer of the investigation. RCSO will continue to provide backup, if necessary, on misdemeanors. The letter states that Stevensville Police Officers “will only perform law enforcement functions within the jurisdictions of the Town of Stevensville. Requests for Mutual Aid outside of the Town of Stevensville will come specifically from the law enforcement agency having jurisdiction.
According to the Stevensville Police Department report, the department had 799 calls for service in 2020, and assisted the Sheriff’s Office 79 times. It was unclear from the report how many times the Sheriff’s Office had assisted Stevensville.
The mayor said he has consulted with legal counsel and they are “perplexed by the Sheriff’s directive that frankly undercuts our police department and doesn’t do much justice to the fact that our staff is capable of handling felony investigation. We’re still vetting the legality of the county’s letter in demanding that felonies are handled in a certain way in Stevensville,” said Mayor Dewey. “We don’t think it is legal.”
The mayor said the letter helps the cause of addressing the recent staffing history of the police department. “We’ve taken steps in good faith to alleviate the staffing challenges and just in the last year we’ve seen good progress, but Chief Marble’s departure set us back,” said the mayor.
The council discussed the possibility of adding staff to the police department. Interim Police Chief Ellington is recommending adding two officers, for a total of six, which would allow for 24/7 coverage. He said there are enough vehicles and equipment to adequately equip six officers, but the mayor said sustainable funding has not been secured. The Town is currently reviewing applications for the position of Chief of Police. The mayor stated that there is $172,000 remaining in the police department’s budget halfway through the fiscal year. From last March through November, the CARES Act has been covering the wages of the police officers and the police clerk. That money is not reflected in the expenditure budget, so there is actually some additional money available there. The mayor said there would be enough to fund an additional officer for one year, but after that the Town would have to look at other options such as grants. He said it would require about $110,000 to fund two additional officers, and the money is just not there right now.
Council member Paul Ludington suggested the council look at the possibility of a public safety levy. The mayor said that in 2018, the council considered a contract with Ravalli County for law enforcement services, as well as a public safety levy. Both options were very unpopular with the public and the council did not move forward on either of them.
The mayor said he would send out a survey to the public regarding their thoughts about the Stevensville Police Department, with some language included about a public safety levy.
In other business, the council:
• approved updates to the Personnel Policy, adding a prohibition against bullying, and clarifying the grievance process;
• confirmed John Ellington as Interim Police Chief;
• approved an amendment to Task Order #3 on the Airport Improvement Project;
• approved emergency paid sick leave for COVID-19 related absences, to fill in the gap left with the end of CARES Act funding;
• approved a two-year contract with Construct Montana, LLC for building inspection services at a cost of 80% of the building fees. Financial Officer Robert Underwood said that there is a shortage of building inspectors at this time. Tim Nisly, owner of Construct Montana, LLC, is a former building inspector who recently started his own firm and now provides full services to various municipalities including Hamilton.
The mayor also mentioned that he is hoping to once again hold in-person council meetings at the North Valley Public Library, starting with the next regular meeting on January 27.
Victoria Howell ca be contacted at [email protected] or 406-207-8793.