Plans to deconsolidate law enforcement in Hardin and Big Horn County have been seriously jeopardized by the uproar over the company hoping to lease Hardin's vacant jail, the former city attorney said Thursday.
Becky Convery said she and Hardin Mayor Ron Adams were still hoping to keep deconsolidation efforts on track despite the "huge amount of controversy" surrounding American Police Force, the shadowy company that has been negotiating to lease the 464-bed jail.
After years of discussion and negotiation, the city and county were close to working out an agreement that would allow Hardin to create its own police department, ending a decadeslong arrangement under which the Big Horn County sheriff provided all law enforcement in Hardin and the county.
Fears that APF was going to establish a private police agency in Hardin have stirred up "severe opposition" to the proposal, Convery said.
On Sept. 23, a week after the city's economic development arm, Two Rivers Authority, announced that it had signed a 10-year contract with APF to run the jail, APF representatives showed up in Hardin driving three Mercedes Benz SUVs bearing magnetic decals that said "City of Hardin Police Department."
That was alarming enough to some people, and it helped spawn rumors - soon spread across the country on the Internet - that Hardin was being occupied by a private police force. Then, on Thursday, The Billings Gazette and Associated Press identified APF representative Michael Hilton as an ex-convict with a long history of criminal activity.
"Residents of Hardin and Bighorn County have come unglued," Convery said, and they were flooding the county commission's office with phone calls expressing opposition to deconsolidation.
Convery also said she resigned Thursday as a contract attorney for Two Rivers Authority. She said she was hired several weeks ago to help TRA negotiate its contract with APF but resigned because those duties now conflict with the work she was doing for the city on deconsolidation.
Convery said she worked on the deconsolidation issue when she was city attorney, a job from which she resigned last February. In June, she said, she contracted with the city to continue working on deconsolidation through a Billings law firm.
TRA, also known as Two Rivers Port Authority, and specifically its now-suspended director, Greg Smith, exceeded its authority by suggesting to Hilton that American Police Force might want to take over policing for the city of Hardin, Convery said.
"Unfortunately, the port authority, quite frankly, had no authority to enter into those discussions," she said.
She said Smith, who was placed on paid leave two days after announcing the deal with APF, told her previously "that he initiated that conversation" with APF.
"I personally was furious because I spent three years of my life working for the city of Hardin on deconsolidation," she said.
Smith, who has not spoken publicly since being suspended, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In addition to working on contract language for the TRA, Convery accompanied Smith and board vice president Al Peterson to California early last month, where they met with Hilton and APF attorney Mazair Mafi to complete contract negotiations.
Convery said the arrival of the Mercedes SUVs decked out as Hardin police vehicles was especially ill-timed because it happened the night before the County Commission held a public hearing on the proposal.
The Hardin City Council has already voted in favor of consolidation and the commission was to have voted on the issue by Oct. 1. That deadline has been extended to next week. County Commissioner John Doyle said the commission expects to vote on the question next Tuesday, but the date isn't certain yet.
Doyle said a stipulation worked out between the city and county is being reviewed by attorneys and will be made public before the commission takes it vote.
Meanwhile, a member of the TRA board said Thursday that revelations about Hilton's criminal history had no bearing on efforts to lease the jail to American Police Force.
"It's really irrelevant," said Tim Murphy, a Hardin dentist. "I feel like you guys want to slam this whole deal any way you can. I'm sure there's somebody with a criminal history working for The Billings Gazette."
Murphy was the only member of the seven-person TRA board to return phone calls Thursday.
Murphy said the only important question was whether APF makes its first lease payment in February, as planned. Its contract with TRA calls for the company to make annual payments of $2.6 million beginning Feb. 1. The contract, however, has not yet been signed by the bondholders who bought $27 million in city-issued bonds that were used to build the jail.
Murphy said he was not concerned about Hilton's past because Hilton is only an employee of APF. He said he hadn't personally met anyone else involved in the company, but that other members of the TRA had.
Repeating complaints that TRA board members and others in Hardin have been making for years, Murphy said Gov. Brian Schweitzer bears most of the blame for the troubles surrounding the vacant jail.
He accused Schweitzer of snubbing the city by refusing to house state prisoners in Hardin, and then vetoing plans to open a sex-offender treatment center in the jail.
"If the governor was doing everything in his power to stop you, what would you do?" Murphy asked. He added later, "There are a lot of people that would prefer Hardin remain stagnant."
Becky Shay, APF's spokeswoman in Hardin, did not return phone calls Thursday, but she said Wednesday that Hilton had returned to California earlier in the week. She said he and his associates drove to California in two of the three Mercedes SUVs. She is still driving the third.