Gov. Steve Bullock has appointed four new members to the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, terminating its current chairman but keeping one member, about a week after the group’s meeting in Billings was abruptly canceled.
In addition, Bullock has issued a directive to the new director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Martha Williams, to create an advisory board to help the parks board build and implement a new vision for parks, as outlined in its 2020 strategic plan.
“Our state parks are one of the many ways we access public lands, and a vibrant state parks system is an important part of our heritage and our economy,” Bullock said in a press release.
The board was created by the Legislature in 2013. All five of the board members were appointed by the governor.
Three of the parks board members’ terms had expired, including Livingston resident Jeff Welch, who will be the only original member of the group to stay on. Board member Mary Sexton, who was recently appointed chair of the executive board for Montana Democrats, was asked to resign with two years left in her term. Sexton said she respects the governor’s decision to move forward with a new group.
“I think we’ve accomplished a good deal, but there’s more to be done,” she said.
Board member Diane Conradi, of Whitefish, had served the length of her term, so she was happy to step aside.
“With new leadership it makes sense to pass the torch,” she said.
Board chairman Tom Towe, of Billings, did not step down at the governor’s request, and his board service was terminated by the governor. Towe, an attorney, said the law is clear that he can’t be terminated without cause and a formal hearing. Now he’s mulling his next move.
“I think it’s a mistake, a serious mistake,” Towe said.
He and Sexton met with Bullock last Friday, Towe said, at which time he emphasized to the governor that he thought continuity was important and politically ousting most of the original parks board was unwise.
“The thing that came out when we talked to the governor — which came out loud and clear — they think they have grounds because I didn’t agree with the governor on House Bill 324,” Towe said. “I did support it.”
But Towe qualified that when he went before the Legislature he spoke as an informational witness only.
“I guess he didn’t like what I had to say,” Towe said.
Earlier this year Montana State Parks came under the scrutiny of the Legislature via HB324 introduced by Rep. Bradley Hamlett, D-Cascade. The bill would have allowed the board to appoint its own director as a move toward greater autonomy from the fish and wildlife side of the agency. Parks would have stayed with FWP, but only for administrative reasons.
The Legislature also zeroed out the budget for Montana State Parks, meaning the agency had to justify all of its expenses. During the Legislature, Bozeman Sen. Mike Phillips called the zero-based budgeting a “big shot across the bow” of FWP. But he opposed Hamlett’s bill saying it went too far and that FWP’s new director should be given a chance.
Bullock vetoed HB324 after it passed the Legislature, much to Hamlett’s displeasure.
“So the executive branch has decided to completely change the board, which I think is vindictive,” Hamlett said.
"We had a board that was dedicated and wanted to do their job and weren't allowed to."
Ronja Abel, the governor’s communications director, said the move by her boss to appoint new board members was not a response to Hamlett’s bill and the legislative discussion that surrounded the measure. But she did say the issue “certainly led to a new urgency to reform the parks board.”
Just before the Legislature met, FWP chief of staff Paul Sihler — who was serving as acting FWP director after Jeff Hagener retired — authored a memo that said parks administrator Chas Van Genderen had been removed over a “personnel issue.” With no FWP director and no parks administrator, the parks department went into the legislative session with little representation, Towe and Conradi said. That was a problem when parks went to the Legislature and asked for money to fund a backlog of maintenance needs. Then Towe said FWP suddenly “came forward and advised us we had a $11.5 million ending fund balance. That torpedoed us.”
Towe said that was a surprise because several times before the legislative session the parks board had requested money for projects that were turned down by FWP. The money became fair game at the Legislature, with dollars going to things the park board wouldn’t have authorized, such as repair work on the county road to Hell Creek State Park in Eastern Montana.
“So the department created the problem and they don’t want us to fix it,” Towe said. “That’s no reason to take it out on us.
“It’s not a good day for parks.”