The minutes of a closed meeting of the Red Lodge City Council in March show that it was Mayor Ed Williams’ idea to seek the resignation of Police Chief Steve Hibler.
The council met in executive session on March 17. On April 6, Hibler announced that he had resigned, effective June 30.
In the minutes of the meeting, which were released by the city on Friday, Williams told the council: “I have determined given the negativity we are seeing from both the public and the concerns some Council members have brought to my attention that it is time Chief Hibler concludes his work in Red Lodge.”
Williams also told the council that because there was no “defensible reason” to simply fire Hibler, “therefore a negotiation will need to occur with him to make this transition as painless as possible for all parties involved.”
In closing the meeting on March 17, Williams said he chose to do so to protect Hibler’s privacy rights, though he did not name the chief in his public comments preceding the closed session. He said, according to the minutes, “This matter relates to an individual’s personal privacy and I believe the demands of individual privacy in this particular circumstance clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure, as provided for in the State law.”
Williams initially refused a request from Last Best News to release the minutes of the closed meeting, saying he would not do so without a District Court order. Last week, on behalf of Last Best News, Billings attorney John Heenan wrote to Williams formally asking for the minutes.
If the minutes were not released by Friday, Heenan said, “we will be forced to file a petition with the District Court, which we very much wish to avoid.”
Williams referred the matter to Sam Painter, a Billings attorney who occasionally works for the city of Red Lodge, and Painter and Heenan exchanged a few emails and spoke by phone. Heenan said Painter told him that he had advised the mayor to release the minutes, which the mayor ultimately agreed to.
Mike Meloy of Helena, the attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said the meeting never should have been closed.
In an email to Last Best News, Meloy said state law “is clear that as a high level employee vested with the public trust the Chief had a diminished right of privacy over an official action to remove him for actions which may have violated that trust. This diminished right of privacy in the circumstances surrounding the mayor’s effort to negotiate a severance cannot be said to have clearly outweighed the merits of public disclosure as required by law.
“The meeting should have been open to the public. Moreover, given the prior public criticism of the performance of the Chief, the public was entitled to know how and in what manner the Council and Mayor were dealing with the problem. Conducting the meeting in secret was bound to further increase the public’s distrust of any decision made in the meeting.”
Criticism of the police department had been mounting in recent months. Much of the criticism centered on a botched drug raid on a private residence in Bearcreek on Jan. 24. Bearcreek is in Carbon County, six miles east of Red Lodge.
In the aftermath of that raid, the Carbon County attorney and sheriff accused the police department of obtaining the search warrant by falsely claiming it was being sought on behalf of the sheriff’s office.
The raid also led to the filing of a civil lawsuit against the city by a woman who said she was injured when Hibler and another police officer entered her home, which is separate from and behind the house named in the warrant, and unlawfully arrested her. Painter, the Billings attorney, is representing the city in that suit, which asks for damages of at least $1 million.
Then, late last month, a group of Red Lodge residents formed an organization called Red Lodge Community Oversight Representative. Michael Keys, one of the founders of the group, said the Bearcreek raid was their main concern, but also general “complaints from all over town about harassment by the police.”
When Hibler announced his retirement, Williams told the Carbon County News that he and the chief were “disturbed by the vicious and personal attacks upon them by some elements of the community.”
In the minutes of the closed meeting, Williams told the council that although the city charter gives the mayor “the authority to terminate employees I would like your support in this approach,” referring to a negotiated settlement.
And though Hibler was hired in 2014 and still has two years left on his contract, Williams said, “my hope is that a settlement can be negotiated that would provide Chief Hibler with a portion of his remaining contract rather than a full payout.”
He said Painter was working on an agreement “that protects the City from any future claims by Chief Hibler,” and that when the separation agreement was complete, the announcement would be made about Hibler’s resignation.
When Hibler made that announcement, however, no details of the agreement were released. Williams told the Carbon County News only that Hibler “chose to ‘amicably’ end the employee/employer relationship.”