Commissioner Mitchell Set to Stand Trial for Destroying County-Owned Trees

Trial was previously set to begin this week, but is now scheduled to begin in February

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell, center, pleaded not guilty on a felony criminal mischief charge in Flathead County District Court on Aug. 31, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell is scheduled to stand trial in February 2018, seven months after he was charged with felony criminal mischief for allegedly killing six cottonwood trees at a public park near his home on Whitefish Lake.

Mitchell was previously set to stand trial this week before 20th District Court Judge Jim Manley in Polson, but he will now make his case before 9th District Court Judge Robert Olson, who covers Glacier, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties.

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 who 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 the 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 dropped limbs onto his adjacent property.

Mitchell pleaded not guilty to the charge in August.

Mitchell, a former member of the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, was elected to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners in 2014.

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