Pedro Hernandez sworn in

Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez is sworn in by Judge Ingrid Gustafson after re-election in 2010.

Gazette Staff

Yellowstone County’s Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez and his wife, Auditor Debby Hernandez, both longtime public officials, announced their retirements from office Wednesday.

The couple will be leaving office effective Nov. 30.

The positions are expected to be filled by appointment by the Yellowstone County Commission.

The current terms of office for both positions expire on Dec. 31, 2018. Whoever is appointed to fill the jobs will have to run for office to retain the position. The jobs are four-year terms.

Pedro and Debby Hernandez both have been longtime public officials.

Pedro Hernandez has been on the bench for 42 years. He said he is the longest elected judge in the state. His annual salary is $101,082.

Pedro Hernandez, 76, said Wednesday he and his wife thought it “was a good time” to retire, saying he wanted to spend time with his family.

Debby Hernandez began working for the county in 1980 as the fiscal manager of the Yellowstone City-County Health Department and then worked for the predecessor to the Big Sky Economic Authority. She ran successfully for auditor as a Republican in 2003. Her annual salary is $91,874.

As auditor, Debby Hernandez's tenure was marked by a series of conflicts with county commissioners and other county officials over the auditor's role and complaints of discrimination and a hostile workplace environment.

Earlier this year, Debby Hernandez apologized to payroll employees for calling them "idiots" in a voicemail message and received a disciplinary letter from the county commissioners telling her that her conduct violated county employee policy. 

Pedro and Debby Hernandez each wrote resignation letters dated Wednesday.

Pedro Hernandez addressed his letter to the Yellowstone County Bar Association and to the citizens of Yellowstone County, with copies to the county commission and local media.

Debby Hernandez addressed her letter to Jenna McKinney, chair of the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee, also with copies to the county commission and local media.

Auditor's challenges

In her letter, Debby Hernandez complained about being understaffed to handle an increased workload and lobbied for retaining an elected county auditor rather than consolidating the job with anther county office, as has been periodically discussed.

Debby Hernandez said while the auditor's job is rewarding, she also called it "a challenging task of late." 

She said she was elected to ensure that tax dollars "are applied in an orderly and transparent fashion." And while that should be the goal for every department, that task has been challenging lately, she continued.

The county's recent switch from a monthly to a twice-monthly payroll, Debby Hernandez said, doubled the workload for her office, which audits payroll to make sure calculations are correct.

"I have a staff of 1.6 FTE and have not been allowed to hire to the staffing level I deem appropriate to run the Auditor's office as it should be run," Debby Hernandez said.

"The burden of the man-hours for increased payroll auditing means that there are auditing functions that are not being performed as I feel they should be," she continued.

"Yellowstone County has revenue streams which are not being audited. While there may be no improprieties or violations of statue, there is simply no way of knowing," she said.

"After 37 years of service to the citizens of Yellowstone County, I am no longer confident that the needs of the county are being met. As a person who values transparency and adherence to both the letter and the spirit of the statutes, I am satisfied with my service to the citizens on those areas that I have been able to audit, but I am dissatisfied by the lack of time and manpower for those areas that are never subject to scrutiny," Debby Hernandez said.

As for a possible consolidation of offices, Debby Hernandez said she believed that would be "ill-advised" and that the auditor's office should be "completely independent of the departments which it may be required to audit." 

Debby Hernandez also said that while she is currently cancer-free, she underwent cancer treatments in the past year and was able to come to work for a large portion of the time. She credited her staff for keeping the office functioning while she was absent for treatment.

Much of the conflicts between Debby Hernandez and other county officials centered on the auditor's authority.

County commissioners and the county attorney repeatedly have advised Debby Hernandez that she was exceeding her authority and that her job is to review claims. The job, they have said, has no audit authority unless requested by the commission.

In addition, the county's books are routinely audited by outside, independent auditors.

Workplace complaints by Debby Hernandez led to two formal investigations. 

Earlier this year, an investigation by a Missoula consultant found no evidence to support a charge by Debby Hernandez of a hostile workplace involving the finance department but said the issues were about "personalities."

And in 2009, Debby Hernandez filed a state human rights complaint against the three commissioners and two employees, claiming discrimination. The Human Rights Bureau dismissed her original complaint but found she had suffered retaliation for filing it. She and the county officials settled with both sides agreeing to drop the case and to treat each other with respect.

'I will miss the people'

Pedro Hernandez said in his resignation letter that as a judge for 42 years, "I have seen the best of humanity and I have seen the worst."

He also officiated at "countless weddings helping to bring families together. That has given me the greatest joy; a job I don't take lightly," he said.

"At the end of the day, I will miss the people," Pedro Hernandez said.

Pedro Hernandez told The Gazette that he's seen the justice court evolve into a court of record and assume more responsibilities on civil and criminal matters.

He is one of two justices of the peace in the county. Unlike Justice of the Peace David Carter, Pedro Hernandez is not a lawyer, but his background was in law enforcement and he has attended numerous training sessions and judicial schools.

Pedro Hernandez said he met all of the education requirements to serve as judge and completed mandatory training and testing and maintained his certification as required by the Montana Supreme Court.

He also is a member of the Yellowstone County Bar Association, the American Bar Association and the American Judges Association.

The job does not require a justice of the peace to be a lawyer. Pedro Hernandez said he would like to see a non-lawyer with a law enforcement background be appointed as his replacement.

Pedro Hernandez was appointed in 1975 to fill a vacancy and has been elected and re-elected ever since. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and studied criminal and juvenile justice at then-Eastern Montana College. 

He became a Billings police officer in 1970 before taking a job in 1972 as a probation officer for the 13th Judicial District.

Pedro Hernandez has served on the Montana Board of Juvenile Justice and numerous other boards and commissions in the community.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.