Park County Judge Brenda Gilbert has thrown out a lawsuit that claimed the City of Bozeman violated state law by using public funds to campaign for the passage of a public safety mill levy to build a $40 million civic center.
Gilbert said that by filing in district court, plaintiffs were trying to circumvent a process that has been put into place through which citizens are allowed to challenge election results. The decision essentially concludes that citizens cannot challenge government in district court, only other government entities such as the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices or local government ethics board can bring a private election challenge to court.
Roger Koopman, Bozeman, led the citizen group that filed the suit. Koopman said that what their next steps will be, in light of this decision, are yet to be determined, but it is unlikely that they will let it stand as is, because “there are very important principles and constitutional rights at stake here.” Although acting in the case on his own behalf as a citizen, Koopman is a Public Service Commissioner and a former state legislator.
Koopman’s group filed the case in Gallatin County’s 18th District Court, asking the court to throw out the Bozeman Public Safety Center election results in November, alleging that the city had used public resources to campaign in support of the bond issue. Montana law prohibits the use of public money and resources to campaign regarding political candidates or issues.
The venue was moved from Gallatin County to Park County to eliminate potential conflicts of interest.
The case has been through the other two processes to which the court referred. In neither process, claims Koopman, did plaintiffs have the opportunity to develop the facts of the case, because neither the Commissioner of Political Practices nor the City Ethics Board allow for due process. Both entities did conclude, however, that the City of Bozeman, which did present its case, had not violated state law.
City officials are concerned about construction delays the case is imposing. They claim it is costing taxpayers $200,000 a month which cannot be covered by the bond proceeds which were specifically set with the election. Additional costs must be obtained from other resources. City officials say they will do what can be done during the 60-day appeal window, before locking in construction contracts.
Koopman issued a statement saying, “The case was not dismissed on its factual merits, but on a denial of my standing as a private citizen, to sue the city government at all… I was unable to do discovery, depose and interrogate witnesses, or otherwise bring out the facts. Only in a court of law could my case against the city have been developed, and my constitutional rights of legal redress defended.”
Koopman called “legal trickery,” the City of Bozeman’s unprecedented maneuver of submitting the case to the Commissioner of Political Practices as both the plaintiff and the defendant, which precluded Koopman’s group from being able to present its case.
“Unfortunately, the judge has agreed with the City of Bozeman’s position that citizens cannot assert their rights in these matters, that only the government can judge the ethical behavior of government,” Koopman further stated. “What this means is that our rights become subservient to unelected bureaucratic agencies and political appointees, that are deemed infallible. Their decisions are unreviewable. This effectively insulates city government from any wrong doing, and abrogates the rights of the people who are supposed to be in charge of their government. The people are provided no recourse.”
“If the law truly says this, then the legislature created an unconstitutional system, and better get to work on fixing it,” continued Koopman, adding, “I don’t believe that is the case. . . . Federal law, as we argued, is also crystal clear, that government resources must be available and evenly distributed to both sides, not just the government’s side. And yet, the city developed a plan that did the opposite, and literally shut out the voices of the other side. And now they maintain that private citizens have no right to legally challenge what they did.”