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Police situation continues to rankle Libby City residents

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | January 20, 2023 7:00 AM

The saga surrounding the resignation of three Libby City Police officers continued Tuesday night with a report that Chief Scott Kessel has been on sick leave for the last few weeks.

City Attorney Dean Chisholm made the announcement during a status report. Chisholm also said a second investigation into allegations from the officers of wrong doing by Kessel was also in progress.

“Hopefully, we’ll hear the results of that soon,” Chisholm said. “She’s been in Libby doing interviews the last few days.”

Three of the force’s officers - Chris Pape, Ian Smith and Cody DeWitt - gave their resignations on Nov. 21, 2022. The trio penned a letter that ran in The Western News on Dec. 27. It included their allegations of misconduct, including possible illegal billing of hours, forced overtime and that Kessel was neglecting certain responsibilities and not concerned for the welfare of the officers in the department.

City officials, despite holding a public meeting the night of Nov. 21, did not share the information of the resignations until a Dec. 5 meeting after a Dec. 3 post on social media brought the matter out into the open.

Then on Dec. 7, city attorney Dean Chisholm said Kessel had been placed on paid administrative leave pending completion of an inquiry by city officials in regard to officer complaints.

Kessel returned to work on Dec. 27 before going on sick leave sometime earlier this month. City officials didn’t provide a specific date for when Kessel began taking sick leave.

Chisholm also said that officer Jonathan Graham had been helping out by filling open shifts left after the resignations of the officers. Graham has remained on the force in a part-time capacity, according to city administrator Sam Sikes. Prior to the officer’s resignations, Graham helped fill open shifts when officers took vacation or other time off, Sikes said.

But he was returning to work in the city’s water treatment plant to focus on preparation for a state-mandated exam he must pass to achieve certification. Graham was a full-time member of the force before moving to the water treatment plant about a year ago.

Incidentally, Sgt. Ronald Buckner and officer Joshua Brabo remain on the force and are responding to call, according to city officials.

In terms of an agreement between the city and Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office to provide law enforcement coverage while the city works to rebuild its police force, council opted to table paying an invoice for $11,784.88.

The Sheriff’s Office submitted the invoice on Jan. 3 for 18 overtime shift coverages and mileage expenses for three pay periods from Nov. 21, 2022, through Dec. 30, 2022.

“I think we should withhold payment on that,” Councilor Hugh Taylor said.

Fellow councilor Kristin Smith said she had concerns with not paying the bill.

Councilor Gary Beach said the county Sheriff’s Office doesn’t even know if it’s legal to bill the city for police coverage. He said the city and county haven’t heard back from the Montana Attorney General’s office on the matter.

Sikes provided a letter dated Jan. 4, 2023, that illustrated the difference in paying its officers for the previously mentioned time frame.

His analysis of the pay rates between city officers working normal hours and county officers working overtime would cost the city an additional $3,351.59.

The meeting was well attended by city residents who continued to have questions and concerns about the police matter as well as the city growth and trail plans.

Resident Brad Nelson presented a petition that he said was signed by 196 city residents seeking the release of information about the investigation.

Former city councilor Darrel “DC” Orr said, “This will damage our city for many years and it’ll be difficult to get applicants in the future.”

Orr, whose Dec. 3 Facebook post revealed the police force situation, told Williams that she should resign from being the Mayor and, “Get outta town.”

Another attendee, Jason Kane, asked a handful of questions to the council.

“Who are you really serving?” and “Is your heart in the right place” as well as “The leadership issues are very concerning,” Kane said.

Joseph Hopkins said he put his name in for the police department, but, “Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have any interest in the job.”