We may never get an adequate answer to this question: What was Phil Mitchell thinking?
What was Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell thinking when he unilaterally destroyed five cottonwood trees in a county-managed park last year?
What was Mitchell thinking when, after his action was discovered, he admitted in a public statement that he was “wrong to kill the trees without permission” but then he pleaded not guilty when the county charged him with that very same crime?
And what was Mitchell thinking when after pleading guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge, he released a statement that implied he was the victim of a “political prosecution” rather than the victim of his own bad judgment?
Mitchell is not a bad man, and he is not a bad county commissioner. By all accounts, he has been a responsible representative of the people in his official capacity. He has also been a public servant in other roles over the years, such as his stints on the Whitefish City Council and the Whitefish School Board. He’s also got a reputation for going above and beyond in his charitable work, helping out those in need without asking anything in return.
But those traits just add to the mystery of how Mitchell could have such a wide blind spot regarding his own selfish behavior in killing the cottonwood trees that he considered a nuisance to his neighboring property.
Although the prosecutors and judge allowed Mitchell to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief, he was originally charged with a felony. Rather than humbly accepting this reduced sentence, Mitchell blamed others for being out to get him. His personal attack on Sheriff Curry was particularly embarrassing — not for Curry, but for Mitchell.
There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Mitchell understands the gravity of his actions, the error of his ways, or the good fortune he had to avoid even more serious consequences. Because the damage to the trees was valued at $30,000 — well past the $1,500 threshold under the criminal mischief statute for major damage — Mitchell could have faced up to a $50,000 fine and even a prison term of as much as 10 years. Instead he got a suspended six-month sentence and a mere $75 fine, and grudgingly agreed to pay $16,000 in restitution. If he really thought the state could not prove its case against him, as he claimed, then he should have gone to trial. But no — he took a sweetheart deal, and then complained about it.
Phil Mitchell was elected by the voters of Flathead County, and he is under no obligation to resign, but we hope he gives full consideration to the awkward position he has put himself in going forward. As one of the three top officers of the county, he should be a role model for county employees and county residents alike. His original actions in destroying county property last year, and his relunctance to accept responsibility subsequently, have diminished his ability to be a positive influence going forward, no matter how good a commissioner he has been in the past.