Hardin agency’s exec put on leave

2009-09-16T22:00:00Z Hardin agency’s exec put on leaveBECKY SHAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 16, 2009 10:00 pm  • 

The executive director of Two Rivers Authority has been placed on paid leave just days after the economic development agency announced a new contract that could fill its empty jail.

Greg Smith was placed on leave last Friday, according to TRA board member Al Peterson.

Smith has been executive director of Two Rivers since late 2007, shortly after the authority opened the detention center it built as a potential employer and economic boost for the community.

Peterson declined to comment about the removal, calling it a personnel issue. Peterson, vice president of the Two Rivers board, is serving as spokesman for the authority.

Two Rivers board president Gary Arneson delivered the letter informing Smith he was on leave, Peterson said. It wasn't clear this week if Two Rivers and Smith would try to come to terms or if his employment will end.

As recently as last Thursday, Smith was giving news media interviews and joined a conference call with jail bond holders as they haggled over details in a contract with a California company to operate the jail.

Smith, who does not have a listed home telephone number, has not returned messages left at the Centre Cinema, which his family has owned for about 25 years. Smith's wife, Kerri, advanced in a primary race Tuesday for Hardin mayor.

Smith was hired to replace James Klessens, who was director for about a year but left to take a job in Cody, Wyo. Smith has a degree in business management and experience in marketing and sales. He retired from the Air National Guard in 2008.

Smith has been the public face of Two Rivers as the board tried to find contractors for the empty $27 million jail. This spring, the agency and the Hardin city council tried to obtain a contract to hold detainees from the closing Guantanamo Bay prison. Smith was thrown into a swirl of media that included nationally known radio and television personalities and international print media that wanted to know why Hardin would consider taking the terrorism suspects.

Two Rivers has signed a 10-year contract with a California company called American Private Police Force Organization, or APF.

Michael Hilton from APF said Smith was pivotal in contract negotiations to obtain from the company a $5-per-day fee for each inmate in the jail. Negotiations on the daily fee began at $2, he said.

"Without Mr. Smith that would not have happened," Hilton said. "He did his best and he succeeded."

Hilton also said that Smith, Peterson and city attorney Becky Convery were the reason his company decided to contract with Hardin to operate the jail. The company's larger goal is to build a training center on the land adjacent to the facility.

Little is known about the company, which says it specializes in international security. However, Peterson said board members individually and as a group have seen enough documentation - although he wouldn't elaborate on what type of documents - and have met personally with representatives of the company and believe it is both solvent and trustworthy.

Two Rivers board members include: Arneson, plant manager at the Hardin Generating Station; Peterson, Hardin's superintendent of schools; Larry Vandersloot, superintendent of the city of Hardin's public-works department; Bill Joseph, owner of Joseph Construction; Dr. Tim Murphy, owner of Hardin Dental Clinic, the board secretary; and Robert Crane, owner/agent of the State Farm Insurance agency in Hardin, treasurer.

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