Reality Check

The County Commissioners’ Misguided Priorities

The commissioners prefer to fund unnecessary consultants over public servants who protect us

By Tammi Fisher

The Flathead County commissioners continue in their pursuit of defunding law enforcement, caring more about legacy building projects than public safety. Their pursuit continues despite the facts that public calls for help since 2019 have increased by 5,000 calls and our population has increased so dramatically that Flathead County was the fastest growing micropolitan area in the nation. Deputies and jailers are quitting due to lack of competitive wages and unsafe working conditions caused by inadequate staffing. So, as a responsible public servant, armed with this data, Sheriff Brian Heino requested an additional seven deputies to fill these voids. In response, the commission, in its collective wisdom, authorized one. One deputy. As predicted, the public is expressing its outrage.  

The excuses, of course, are plentiful. Commissioner Randy Broedehl, a state legislator before taking office, blames the state government for putting the squeeze on the county. But that excuse doesn’t wash since the county can levy 101 mills to obtain the funding it needs yet has deliberately chosen to levy 96 mills. 

Commissioner Pam Holmquist’s vote was predictable because she was credibly criticized during her recent re-election campaign for her efforts to buy and remodel buildings versus adequately funding law enforcement. She obviously learned nothing from the result of her campaign, where two-thirds of Republicans voted for another candidate.

Last and certainly least is Commissioner Brad Abell, who questions the “professionalism” of sheriff’s deputies for daring to voice their disdain about the commission’s decision on Facebook while chiming in himself. Abell believes the sheriff’s deputies are his “subordinate” and that they are required to “track [him] down and have an in-person conversation” about the sheriff’s staffing needs. Apparently, the sheriff making his case with legitimate supporting data wasn’t sufficient. 

The collective commission doesn’t understand its role is limited. Under Montana law, they do not have supervision over sheriff’s deputies; deputies are not “subordinate” to the commission. The powers of county commissioners related to law enforcement are limited to 1) affixing the budget, 2) establishing a curfew, and 3) issuing rewards for the apprehension of criminals. The sheriff is responsible for preserving the peace, hiring and supervising deputies, and taking charge of and keeping command of the detention center (jail). Yes, the relationship is symbiotic, but it is not one of superior-subordinate.  

Let’s face it: the commissioners don’t understand their role, pass the buck on decisions they are accountable for, condemn deputies who are left unsafe without backup due to underfunding and prefer to fund unnecessary consultants over public servants who protect us. If they weren’t elitist demagogues, the Flathead County commissioners would hang their heads in shame over their collective incompetence.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney, former mayor of Kalispell and host of the Montana Values Podcast.