Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell pleaded not guilty to a felony criminal mischief charge after allegedly killing six cottonwood trees at a public park near his home on Whitefish Lake.
Mitchell appeared at an arraignment on Aug. 31 in Flathead County District Court before Judge Heidi Ulbricht. Mitchell is scheduled to stand trial in January.
As a condition of Mitchell’s release, county prosecutor Ed Corrigan asked the commissioner to stay out of the park near his residence until the case is resolved.
Sean Frampton and Todd Glazier are representing Mitchell.
According to court records, on July 11, a Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department employee found six dying or dead cottonwood trees in a half-acre county-owned park known as Lake Park Addition just south of Whitefish Lake State Park. The trees appeared to be girdled, a tactic that involves removing a thick strip of bark ringing the tree’s circumference, causing the tree to die.
The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the destruction in July and retained an arborist that determined it would cost more than $30,000 to replace the trees.
In an interview with law enforcement, Mitchell allegedly admitted to girdling the trees and pouring herbicide Roundup on at least one of them.
In late July, Mitchell issued a written apology to county staff for destroying the trees and offered to pay for their replacement. He said he destroyed the cottonwoods because they were a “substantial nuisance” that frequently drop limbs on to his adjacent property.
“I realize that because of my elected position, I may have put county officials in an awkward position. I have urged them to treat me no differently than they would treat any other citizen,” Mitchell stated. “I take complete responsibility for this wrongful act and apologize to everyone in Flathead County for my conduct. I look forward to restoring the parkland to better than ever condition.”
Mitchell, a former member of the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, was elected to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners in 2014.
The park features a floating dock, picnic tables and groves of mature trees, and it is accessed by a 60-foot-wide county easement off West Lakeshore Drive that tracks down to the lakeshore.
Mitchell has previously approached the county about acquiring the lakefront park through a land swap, offering three acres of land he owns along the Whitefish River in Evergreen for the county site.
If convicted of felony criminal mischief, he could face up to 10 years in prison or a $50,000 fine.