Soon after losing re-election in the June primary, Yellowstone County Clerk of Court Kristie Boelter told her staff she wouldn’t be in the office as much.
In a June 15 email in which she wrote “my status” in the subject line, Boelter said she was “gearing up for my new path.” She informed her staff that she had to prepare for a new career and delegated two supervisors to manage most office operations.
Boelter said in an interview on Wednesday that she was fulfilling her responsibilities, but from outside of the office. She also said she recently went on vacation and has been caring for a sick family member.
Boelter said she is working full-time for her full-time salary. Boelter is paid $81,358 a year, which includes longevity pay.
District Judge Russell Fagg, the district’s chief judge, said he had seen Boelter’s email.
“I’m disappointed she hasn’t been in the office very much because she’s getting a nice salary, and I think we owe it to the taxpayers to make sure the job gets done,” Fagg said on Thursday.
Boelter also accused the incoming clerk of court, Terry Halpin, of “digging” at her office.
Halpin, a Republican and judicial assistant for Fagg, soundly beat Boelter in the June 7 primary, getting 51 percent of the vote to Boelter’s 33 percent. A third Republican, Richard William Nixon, received 14 percent of the vote. No Democrat filed for the office.
Halpin will take office at the beginning of 2017.
Boelter was seeking a second term. Her first term was marked by complaints by judges and conflicts over office operations and clashes with other elected officials.
Boelter wrote in her email: “It is important for you to know that I will fulfill my obligations for these next 6 months, but I also must prepare myself for my new career. As each of us know family comes first and although you are like family to me I am not obligated to pay your bills nor do you depend on me to pay them.
“I must make my transition a smooth one for my family and myself.
“Therefore I will be taking advantage of the benefits that I have as an elected official, one of those being the benefit of not having to be at work as much. I will still be coming in periodically to make sure things are going well and to fulfill my responsibilities.”
Boelter referred questions about the benefits of her office to Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen.
Gillen said elected county officials do not accrue vacation or sick time and that the “benefit” could be interpreted as physical presence in the office isn’t required to be more than the official believes is necessary to perform the functions.
Elected officials can come and go as they please, Gillen said. All of the elected officials “put in more than enough time in my book, including Ms. Boelter,” he said.
The only Montana statute regarding absences for a county officer, Gillen said, is that if an officer is gone from the state for more than 30 consecutive days without the consent of the county commissioners, the officer forfeits the office.
Gillen also said he had not heard complaints about any elected officials and their hours.
Because of the responsibilities of her office, Boelter said she’s probably been in the office more than any other elected official. She also said she has the same responsibilities since the primary election but was not doing them in the office.
Most of her work, she said, is communicating with attorneys and organizations through emails and that she has been emailing and taking staff questions from outside the office.
After the primary, Boelter said, she took time off she had acquired from time she had put in earlier “to take a little bit of break” to take classes and a vacation. She also took personal time off when a family member became ill, she said.
Boelter posted on her Facebook page on July 23 that she had finished her realtors class. “On to the exam!” she wrote.
On Wednesday, Boelter said she had returned to the office and was helping to process marriage licenses but could not estimate her weekly hours.
Boelter on Wednesday also posted on Facebook that she was back in the office to process marriage licenses and said she had been processing licenses for “2 straight days. We have a lot of newly weds in Billings!!”
During her first years in office, Boelter said, she worked more than 40 hours a week and almost every weekend because there was not enough staff.
And because elected officials do not earn vacation or sick time, she said she decided to take some time off. “All the other elected officials do the same thing,” she said.
Boelter also accused Halpin of trying to stir controversy over her office hours.
“Terry already won. I don’t know why she had to keep digging my office,” Boelter said.
Halpin responded saying she had seen Boelter’s June 15 email and had heard about it from other attorneys and courthouse staffers. “I’m not sure how I’m responsible for sending the email (Boelter wrote) to her staff,” she said.
Judge Fagg said, while he's disappointed Boelter hasn't been in the office as much, "her absence really hasn’t affected the office. We have had problems and unfortunately, we continue to have problems,” Fagg continued.
The problems, the judge said, were not going to get solved until the new clerk takes office. “Which is unfortunate, but it’s kind of where we’re at,” Fagg said.
Losing Halpin, who has worked for Fagg for 17 years, will be “terrible” for him, the judge said.
“Terry is awesome,” Fagg said. He called Halpin “a terrific judicial assistant,” “totally organized” and service oriented. “I will miss her tremendously,” he said.
“The only way I can look at it — it’s for the greater good,” Fagg said.