Dismissal reveals deep divide between state environmental groups

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A state commission tasked with protecting the Flathead Basin’s waters is at odds with its umbrella organization, according to newly released letters and emails. These documents pertain to the February termination of Flathead Basin Commission Executive Director Caryn Myske.

Miske was terminated after 12 years leading the 23-member commission, which was created by state lawmakers in 1983 and is under the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation “for administrative purposes only.”

Miske received a termination letter from Mark Bostrom, administrator of the department’s Conservation and Resource Development Division, on Feb. 26. The firing came after nearly three months of investigations and exchanges between department staff and Miske’s attorneys and allies on the commission.

These documents, and input from Miske, her lawyer and others, reveal deep divisions between department staff and commission members over Miske’s activities and the group’s proper role.

In his termination letter, Bostrom listed five areas in which Miske had allegedly failed in her role as executive director of the commission.

The first, Bostrom wrote, was “Circumvention of the Executive Planning Process.” Bostrom argued that, in 2017, Miske had violated state budgeting laws and “disrupted the formation of the executive’s budget at the Legislature” by securing $40,000 in commission funding through an amendment to a spending bill. In an email, Miske wrote that she had been prohibited from lobbying in Helena during last year’s session, and that she had not been the key person in securing that funding.

“However, I told legislators that we had suffered budget cuts at the hands of DNRC and needed additional funding in order to remain whole.” She said that the legislators had acted “within their discretion” in taking this step.

Miske’s second failure, Bostrom claimed, was “leading an unauthorized attempt to change the structure of government.” She had done so, she continued, in two 2016 email exchanges about moving the commission from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to the Department of Commerce

As previously reported, Miske has clashed with the former department’s director, John Tubbs, over funding and administrative matters. Bostrom wrote that she twice discussed a move to Commerce — first with officials from that department and the Montana Environmental Information Center, then with Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork.

Noland told the Inter Lake that he had suggested a relocation in a meeting around this time, discussed it further with commissioners via email and raised it with officials from the Departments of Revenue and Natural Resources and Conservation. He said the matter went no further.

But because Tubbs had not been aware of these actions, Bostrom wrote, Miske’s behavior had been “subversive and disruptive of state agency operations. This action on your part ... stands alone as grounds for termination.”

Anne Sherwood, an attorney at Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola in Helena, addressed this allegation on behalf of Miske. In an email, she did not dispute Miske’s attempt to relocate. However, “we maintain that Ms. Miske never did anything illegal...Ms. Miske spoke to selected legislators about transferring the FBC’s administrative attachment to another department, which legislators have the power to do.”

In his third point, “misleading the FBC commissioners to operate outside of statutory bounds,” Bostrom faulted Miske for a “personal belief that the FBC is an agency watchdog,” arguing that monitoring state agencies fell outside the responsibilities assigned to the commission by state law.

The commission’s Executive Committee, composed of Thompson Smith, Jan Metzmaker and Rich Janssen, pushed back against these allegations in a Jan. 14 letter to the department, arguing that it had to serve as a “watchdog” of whatever might threaten the basin.

They also acknowledged friction with other state agencies, but said that they had sought to improve ties with both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Upper Columbia Conservation Commission without success.

Sherwood, again on behalf of Miske, wrote that “we believe the Department’s recent concerns about the FBC being a ‘watchdog’ of the Department speak to the heart of this dispute, which is the level of independence asserted by Ms. Miske and the FBC.”

According to documents provided by the department, Miske had solicited donations from non-state sources to help fund aquatic invasive species prevention efforts.

But Bostrom found plenty to criticize in Miske’s financial management. In his fourth point, he alleged that the Basin Commission’s bookkeeping suffered under Miske. “Emails from Department personnel demonstrate the continual effort required to get basic information and documentation as required, and often multiple months of documentation were missing or incomplete.” He also noted that Miske had used donated funds to contract with Express Personnel Services, a temp agency, for some support tasks, but not administrative ones.

But Miske and Sherwood contend that non-department funds could be used “specifically for programmatic work, which did not include administrative assistants.” They added that “Ms. Miske has never asserted she was perfect in her administrative duties but contends that any ‘short falls’ and any hardship they caused have been exaggerated by the Department in an effort to justify her termination.”

At the end his list, Bostrom discussed Miske’s “employment relationship with the Department.”

The divide runs so deep that the department and commission even differ on who Miske works for. “The Department maintains that you are a Department employee, and it has the sole authority to discharge you from employment,” Bostrom wrote, a stance shared by department attorneys. But Sherwood wrote in a Jan. 25 letter that “Ms. Miske was hired without the approval or control of the Department. According to the FBC bylaws, she is supervised by the FBC Executive Committee, independent of the Department.”

Miske’s termination hasn’t put an end to these points of contention. Sherwood wrote that Miske plans to go through the Department’s internal grievance procedure. In the meantime, she is writing grants for Lake County.

As another boating season begins, questions remain regarding the group’s future in Montana’s fight against aquatic invasive species.

According to the minutes from the commission’s meeting last week, state lawmakers had allocated $150,000 for the commission’s 2018 fiscal year budget, but in the wake of special session budget cuts, only about $15,000 remains. At that meeting, Kate Wilson, the department’s invasive species outreach coordinator, told the commission that the department would be willing to seek a budget appropriation if it has a “solid focus/need that can be defended.”

The Missoulian reported that, at the same meeting, Mark Bostrom questioned the group’s need for an executive director moving forward. He did not reply to a request for comment.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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