A group of Red Lodge residents has formed an organization to provide oversight of city government and to protect the civil rights of people in the community.
“Basically what we want to do is, we want first and foremost to work with the city administration in keeping our police department professional,” said Michael Keys, one of the organizers of Red Lodge Community Oversight Representatives.
The foundation for the group was laid when Keys and a few other people started talking about the recent drug bust in Bearcreek, which was carried out by Red Lodge city police officers.
The raid, which resulted in no charges partly because of the way it was conducted, opened a rift with the Carbon County attorney and sheriff, who accused the police department of fraudulently obtaining a search warrant by claiming it was being sought on behalf of the sheriff’s office. Bearcreek is an incorporated town six miles southeast of Red Lodge.
The raid also led to the filing of a civil lawsuit against the city by a woman who said police officers unlawfully entered her house, separate from and behind the house named in the search warrant, placed her in handcuffs and detained her in the back of a police car before letting her go.
In addition to discussing the Bearcreek raid, Keys said, he and others started hearing “complaints from all over town about harassment by the police.”
Keys and six other people looked into various means of getting the community more involved in city government, ultimately forming a group modeled after the Civilian Police Oversight Agency in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Red Lodge COR held an organizational meeting on Friday and elected Bill Larson as chairman. Other members, besides Keys, are Diane Dimich, Beth Steen, Heather Iselin, Stephanie Naftal and Nate Davis.
Members of the group make no secret of their dissatisfaction with some of the actions taken by Mayor Ed Williams and Police Chief Steve Hibler, but Keys said their larger goal is to work with city officials.
As it says on the COR website: “We are offering our help to council members to help improve relations between local government and the community in order to dispel rumors, encourage transparency, and answer questions from the public. We’d prefer that one council member become closely involved with COR in the near future.”
Keys said most people don’t know how cities function, what rules govern city councils or how police departments are organized and operated. For starters, he said, at least one member of COR will be attending all meetings of the City Council, including committee meetings, and meetings of the Red Lodge Police Commission.
“We want to be involved,” Keys said. “We want to be that buffer between the administration and the community.”
They will also offer to accompany people who want to file a complaint against the police department but would feel intimidated going in alone.
“The seven of us are well-known and fairly well trusted in the community.” Keys said.
Members of the new group attended a City Council meeting last week and briefly introduced COR to city officials, telling them what their plans were.
The mayor and the police chief told Last Best News they are willing to see what the new organization has to offer, though both said they knew little about it yet.
“I haven’t had a chance to dig through it and find out what they’re really up to,” Williams said. Asked if the city would be able to work with the group, Williams said, “I’ll take a look and see if it’s something we can do.”
Keys gave a specific example of a recent misunderstanding that COR might have been able to deal with easily. There was a persistent rumor that the city had paid $6,000 for a sniper rifle that one of its police officers had been issued.
People raised questions about it at multiple City Council meetings and at a meeting of the Police Commission, but city officials kept denying it had purchased any such weapon. Finally, Hibler did mention that one officer had a .308 long-barrel rifle that had been purchased to put down dangerous animals.
Keys said Hibler appeared to have genuinely misunderstood that someone had mistaken the .308 for a sniper rifle. If COR had been in place, Keys said, “We could have come in and sat down with the mayor and the chief, figured out what they had and why they had it.”
Another problem, Keys said, is that the Red Lodge Debate Facebook page is a great community forum, it is also a hotbed of rumors, which COR hopes to clear up by working in tandem with city officials.
Another point of dispute had been the lack of notice about meetings of the Police Commission and the commission’s failure to post minutes of its meetings. Keys said last week that he wasn’t getting any cooperation from the city on that subject, but on Sunday he said he was working with City Councilwoman Glory Mahan, who has promised to get minutes posted where the public can access them, and was trying to make sure there is advance notice of all Police Commission meetings.
Steen, meanwhile, has been looking into how people can find out what happened at a closed meeting of the City Council on March 17. State law allows public bodies to go into executive session to discuss matters “of individual privacy … if the presiding officer determines that the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.”
Williams has said only that the meeting was closed to discuss a “personnel matter,” fueling yet another round of rumors. Steen wrote to Mike Meloy of Helena, the attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, to ask whether the city could be compelled to say what was talked about at the meeting.
“How is the public to trust that the matters in this meeting were in fact what we were told?” she asked.
Meloy, in response, said the only recourse would be to sue the City Council. (See correction below.)
Meloy also said that the mayor should identify the personnel issue and make a determination that an open meeting would have an impact on a privacy concern, and determine whether or not the person under discussion has waived the right of privacy.
“Then,” Meloy said, “he needs to do the constitutional balancing test … all in open session.”
Editor’s note: This is not correct. Meloy was referring to the Police Commission, which Steen also asked about, and she wrote to Meloy before Keys reported on his work with Mahan to obtain the commission’s minutes.