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Thursday, March 22, 2018

State Parks Board dismissals lead to anger, frustration

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Eight months after former administrator Chas Van Genderen was suddenly and unexpectedly dismissed from his post, the remaining leadership of Montana State Parks was swept aside this week after Gov. Steve Bullock fired or replaced all but one of the members of the State Parks and Recreation Board, including the board chairman. The move was met with consternation by state parks supporters, already still smarting from van Genderen’s firing.

With Makoshika still without a water line to its campground or funding to do it — and with the park having surpassed 100,000 visitors last year — Parks supports are concerned that whatever momentum had been building towards getting that done will be lost given that former chairman Tom Towe, some of the other Parks Board members let go and van Genderen before them had become strong advocates not only for that specific project, but for directing more of State Parks’ funding and resources towards improving its top-tier parks like Makoshika. 

To Friends of Makoshika President Jim Swanson, nothing that the governor has done with State Parks in the last eight months has made a lick of sense.

“About the time we get the ducks in a row, they start knocking down the ducks,” he said. “(The Parks Board) was trying to get State Parks secure and (Bullock’s) playing politics with it. It’s just nuts to me. I’m very unhappy.”

Towe, the now-dismissed board chairman, said in a phone interview Thursday that he was taken completely off-guard by Bullock’s decision to remove himself and four of the other board members, saying it “was totally out of the blue.” The only board member to be retained by Bullock was Jeff Welch, of Livingston. Three of the board members’ terms were expired, but Towe’s was not.

According to Towe, he was first made aware of the governor’s desire to remove him  and the other board members via a phone call from Bullock’s chief of staff on Aug. 11. Towe said he was asked to resign, but he refused and asked for a meeting with the governor. Towe credited Bullock for granting that meeting, which he said took place on Aug. 18, but it did not result in a change in the governor’s position. Towe said he again refused to resign and then on Tuesday he received a letter from the governor’s chief of staff informing him he had been terminated “for cause.”

As for the reason for his removal, Towe said it became evident to him during his meeting at the governor’s office that Bullock was irritated that he and the other Parks Board members had “supported” HB 324, a bill passed by the 2017 Legislature which would have granted State Parks greater autonomy from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, leaving the parks division attached to FWP administratively, but putting the hiring and firing of the State Parks administrator in the hands of the Parks Board, not the FWP director, and giving State Parks control over its own budget, something it does not enjoy at present. 

That bill handily passed through both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support, but Bullock was steadfastly against the proposal and vetoed it.

“It was quite apparent during that discussion that the governor was upset that I supported HB 324,” Towe said. “It was my conclusion and generally accepted by all the board members that Parks would be better off if we had our own administrator and control of our own budget.”

The Ranger-Review sent questions regarding the matter to Bullock’s communications director, but the governor’s office did not respond to those questions before press time. Communications Director Ronja Abel did claim in an article in Wednesday’s edition of the Billings Gazette that the disagreement over HB 324 was not the reason for Bullock terminating Towe and most of the rest of the board, but added that the issue “certainly led to a new urgency to reform the parks board.”

Towe, for his part, remains adamant that it was the reason, and further disputes some of Bullock’s assertions in the matter. For one, he disputes that he actually “supported” HB 324 before the Legislature. 

Towe argued that during the hearing on the bill, he signed in as an “informational witness” not a “supporter,”  and that he did not go into the hearing with the intent to try and thwart Bullock’s position on the bill, but that he simply answered the questions legislators posed to him as honestly as he could.

“I guess the governor didn’t like what I said, but I answered as truthfully and honestly as I could based on what I had witnessed during my time on the board,” Towe said. “The fact is I answered questions ... I didn’t support the bill.”

Towe also disputes that the governor had any right to unilaterally terminate him without a formal hearing. Moreover, he adamantly disputes that Bullock had “cause” to fire him.

“Opposing the governor’s position on a bill in the Legislature is not cause,” he said, adding that he is absolutely certain that case law will back him up on that if he pursues a legal challenge.

As to whether he will try to take the governor to court over his dismissal, Towe said he is still trying to decide whether or not to pursue legal action.

“I haven’t decided,” Towe said. “I think the governor’s clearly wrong.”

Both Towe and Swanson repeatedly brought up van Genderen’s firing in their comments, showing it’s still a sore point amongst State Parks supporters. No clear answer has ever been given by Bullock as to why van Genderen was suddenly let go, with the governor’s office only ever commenting that it was a “personnel issue.” Both Towe and Swanson bemoaned that the fact State Parks went into the legislative session without a leader meant that they had no strong advocate to speak out for State Parks during the session.

“First (Bullock) canned van Genderen just before the Legislature started and now this,” Swanson said. “I’m very unhappy with the governor.”

Towe noted his lingering disappointment over van Genderen’s termination, arguing that he was beloved by State Parks staff and was well-regarded by his colleagues around the country.

“They had, just before the legislative session started, fired our parks administrator, who as I understand has a national reputation as a parks administrator,” Towe said. “He was a really good administrator as far as (the Parks Board) could determine, and he was really well-liked by his employees.”

With his own termination by the governor coming just months after van Genderen’s, Towe said “it’s a bad day for Parks.”

Swanson was even more animated.

“It’s just awful. It’s crazy. What the hell are they thinking about?” he said.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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