News & Features

County Attorney: No Decision Yet on Libby Ethics Complaint

Public pressure grows while Lincoln county attorney continues to investigate ethics complaint against Libby’s mayor and city council

The Lincoln County Attorney is reviewing an ethics complaint from the Montana commissioner of political practices that alleges the Libby City Council, Mayor Doug Roll and former City Attorney James Reintsma violated election laws just days before the 2013 election.

Meanwhile, public pressure is growing on Roll and during a heated city council meeting on May 19, a handful of residents called for the mayor to resign. Some residents also said they would begin circulating a petition to recall Roll.

“The best thing you can do for the future of Libby is to resign today,” Arlen Magill said during the city council meeting that was recorded and posted on YouTube.

The recent rash of political unrest in Libby began in early May when Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl issued a report stating that Reintsma and others violated election laws when the city filed a lawsuit against mayoral candidate Allen Olsen, who was running against incumbent Roll in the 2013 election. The lawsuit alleged that Olsen, who has served on the city council since 2012, was not eligible to run for mayor because he did not live in the city. A motion to delay the race was overruled just days before voters went to the polls and on Election Day Roll beat Olsen by just 13 votes.

Some residents believe Olsen would have won had the lawsuit against him not dominated the news in the days leading up to the election. In 2014, Olsen and the city went to trial and a judge determined that Olsen was indeed a resident and thus could hold office.

A year after the election, Magill, who has previously run for city council, filed a complaint with the commissioner of political practices. On May 12, Motl announced that the city attorney (who has since taken another job in Oregon), the mayor and members of the city council had violated the law by using “public resources for the express advocacy purpose of opposing the election of Mayoral candidate Olsen.”

The report has since been given to Lincoln County Attorney Bernard Cassidy, who will decide if criminal charges will be filed. As of May 29, Cassidy said his office was still investigating the incident and had “no comment” on the matter. If Cassidy does not file charges, the complaint would go back to Helena and Motl could file charges.

The day the report was released, Olsen said he was not surprised at the outcome. But Roll and the city councilors who were named – including former councilors Vicky Lawrence and Robin Benson and current members Barbara Desch, Bill Bischoff and Peggy Williams – said they were shocked because they had never talked to Motl to present their side of the events.

On May 19, a few residents expressed their frustration with the council during a heated meeting. Those who spoke said that Roll and the others should resign or face a recall.

“Our last election was bogus and we were cheated out of a vote,” said D.C. Orr, a Libby resident and longtime critic of Roll, adding that the lawsuit against Olsen was “unethical and dishonest.”

“As if we don’t have enough problems with asbestos and no jobs, now we have leaders breaking the law,” said Charles McFarland.

About an hour into the meeting, Roll decided to end the council session, much to the chagrin of attendees.

“You’re going to jail, Doug!” one person yelled from the crowd.

When asked why he had ended the meeting, Roll said that the testimony was “getting redundant.”

“You’re redundant, you idiot!” shot back a person in attendance.

Roll has maintained that no one on the council broke the law. He said the people who are making the most noise about the ethics complaint are from a small group of citizens who don’t represent the majority. In response to a possible recall, Roll said “it’s their right to try.”

Olsen said he is confident that Roll and the others will be out of office and if Motl doesn’t do it, the citizens of Libby will.

If Roll does face a recall election, it will not be the first time it has happened in Lincoln County in recent years. In 2012, Troy Mayor Donald Banning was recalled after a city council faction alleged he was breaking the law and making decisions without consent of the council.

Olsen and the rest of the city council, especially Mayor Roll, have had a troubled relationship ever since Olsen was elected in 2011. In 2012, Roll refused to put Olsen on any committees because he alleged the councilor did not live within city limits. Then, in 2013, Olsen blasted Roll for fixing a city-owned truck at his garage. Roll said no other garage was able to make the repair quickly, but he later reimbursed the city.

A few months later, Olsen and Roll butted heads again over the lease of a city-owned asphalt zipper. Then in September 2013, City Attorney Reintsma threatened Olsen with censure after he continued to criticize the work of a local water irrigation company during city council meetings. Olsen’s tree nursery does water work.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.