Monday, March 01, 2021

Commissioners acted improperly in appointing Bernhard

| February 5, 2021 7:00 AM

To the editor:

On Jan. 20, the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners chose to violate Montana Code Annotated (MCA, i.e. "the law") when they appointed Scott Bernhard to the Lincoln County Board of Health. The Commissioners have done what many admonished the health board for doing: failing to follow procedure.

Lincoln County has a city-county board of health. The MCA outlines how such boards are filled in 50-2-106. Each incorporated city/town council appoints one representative to the board (Eureka, Libby, Troy). The commissioners send one of themselves (currently Josh Letcher). The health board needs a minimum of five total members, so going by the MCA, Lincoln County would only need to fill one more "at large" seat.

"At-large" seats on this board, according to MCA, need to be filled in a manner that the cities/towns and the county mutually agree upon. Locally, this mutual agreement appears to be the health board's bylaws, which reference "Interlocal agreement(s)" for how the board is composed.

Lincoln County chooses to have three at-large seats. This is spelled out in those bylaws, which state, "Three additional members appointed by the Board of County Commissioners based on recommendations from the [health] board."

The health board cast three votes in favor of Patty Kincheloe and four votes in favor of Jeff Peterson. Commissioners appointed neither of them, thus they did not base their appointment on the recommendation, which the MCA requires by way of the bylaws.

Despite three emails and a 20-plus minute phone call, Commissioner Jerry Bennett, chair of the board, has been unable or unwilling to refer me to any document that could authorize this departure from process. Bennett's explanation is that Bernhard has lived there his whole life and he said that a lot of people spoke or wrote on Bernhard's behalf.

Bennett insisted in an email that "there was no departure from proper procedures," so either this was an attempt to gaslight or is actually ignorant, but in either case, it seems unlikely that the board of commissioners will correct its error.

It seems unlikely that anyone would sue the County to correct this violation, but a board that acts illegally opens the county to risk for expensive lawsuits.

It likely will be awkward for members of the board of health, having to work with a member they did not recommend, and knowing the commissioners do not support them. I have hope that the board adapts quickly and I wish Bernhard the best in his term of service.

Meanwhile, the commissioners have sent a clear message: If you weren't born here, you need not apply.

Latimer Hoke