The Stillwater County Commissioners appear to be so out of touch with their constituents that they can’t be bothered to respond to residents on issue after issue. Several recent examples show a pattern of inadequate communication as well as failures in planning, budgeting and executing complex projects.
Stillwater County oil and gas district
Last November 11, Stillwater County landowners presented over 360 signatures to the Commissioners petitioning to establish the Stillwater County Beartooth Front Zoning District. The petitioners are landowners who want to protect their properties from potential damage caused by oil and gas activity, in accordance with Montana law. The petition was the result of two years of work on oil and gas issues, and the enthusiastic residents packed the Commissioners’ meeting room on the day the signatures were submitted.
Local regulations would address issues that are not part of Montana law. Examples include:
- Minimum distances, or setbacks, between wellheads and occupied residences
- Regular water testing before drilling begins and periodically afterwards to protect landowners against possible contamination
- Specifications for well design to reduce the probability of toxic wastewater leakage.
The next step in forming the district is for the County Clerk and Recorder to validate these signatures against public records so that the Commissioners can determine that the district is in the “public interest and convenience.” Once that happens, a planning and zoning commission can be formed to work on creating the district.
Here’s where we are, three months after the petitions were submitted: the County has made no progress. There have been no signatures validated. After not hearing from the Commissioners since the petitions were submitted, the petitioners asked that a progress report be given as an agenda item at the February 9 Commissioners meeting. At the meeting the Commissioners stated that they are looking for direction from other counties on a process for signature validation, but offered no timetable for action.
You can view the November 11 Commissioners meeting and signature presentation below:
Stillwater River Road rockslide
Last June 3, a rockslide on Stillwater River Road closed it to through traffic. This County road is a significant thoroughfare that connects Absarokee to Nye and is a secondary connector to the Sillwater Mine and Custer National Forest. The closure is a matter of great concern to local residents who depend on the road for commerce, to employees at the Mine who use it to travel to work, and to those who want to enjoy the Stillwater River or Custer National Forest for recreation. In addition, with memories of the devastating 2006 Derby Fire fresh in residents’ minds, the importance of maintaining multiple clear paths to safety is a paramount concern.
In June and July the County engaged with engineering firms SK Geotechnical of Billings to do a risk analysis and Geostabilization International of Grand Junction, CO to do a preliminary proposal for rockfall remediation. The initial proposal included rock scaling, the insertion of metal rods to hold the rock wall in place, and a mesh fence to protect the area below from falling rock. A rough cost, according to the preliminary proposal, was $1.5 million, which could be phased over time.
In November, after a formal bid process, the County contracted with Shannon and Wilson, an engineering firm from Denver, to do a time and materials contract to determine a plan of action and cost of repairs.
According to the Stillwater County News, Shannon and Wilson submitted a 23-page report in December that dismissed previous mitigation suggestions as too costly and offered four new solutions including rock scaling and various kinds of fencing, including one option in which rockfall would automatically close a gate on the road to traffic. These proposals were similar in concept, although reduced in scope, from the original estimate submitted in July.
The consulting firm also suggested further risk analysis and offered suggestions on funding sources currently used in rebuilding West Rosebud Road. That funding is a joint project of “the Western Federal Lands Highway Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Stillwater County.”
A subcommittee comprised of the three Stillwater County commissioners, Road & Bridge Superintendent Mark Schreiner, County Attorney Nancy Rohde, and Disaster & Emergency Services Director Carol Arkell has decided more study is required.
According to Rohde, Shannon and Wilson’s dismissal of earlier mitigation proposals as “economically infeasible” was “too conclusory.”
“We’re probably no further ahead than we were,” she said about the draft report.
Commissioner Jerry Dell hosted a public meeting at the Nye firehouse last July to provide an update and listen to resident concerns. At the meeting, Commissioner Dell responded to complaints about lack of communication by promising regular updates from the County to residents. These updates have stopped. There have been no updates since November 30, no Commissioner meeting minutes posted since October 27, and the Shannon and Wilson report has not been posted to the County website.
Here’s where we are, eight months after the rockslide: the road is still closed, and the County has communicated no budget or potential sources of funding for the repairs, no timeline, and no plan on how to move forward. The Commissioners have stopped communicating with local residents regarding this issue, either through an email list of property owners or on the County website.
Although the County claims that FEMA has denied funding for the project, it is clear that there has not been a systematic examination of potential federal and state funding sources for repairs. Several local residents have commented that, after six months of being “no further ahead than we were,” after the July preliminary proposal, the Commissioners seem to be in over their heads and unable to evaluate possible options or funding sources.
Prospects for getting the road opened in 2016 appear slim at this point.
Stillwater County Courthouse upgrade
For the last several years, the Commissioners have been considering what to do with the County Courthouse. The process has been a communications debacle, marked by changing stories, inconsistent statements and public confusion about the Commissioners’ intent.
The Commissioners contracted with Spectrum Group Architects of Billings sometime before January 2013 and paid over $70,000 to look at County service needs. After public allegations that the Commissioners were only looking at remodeling the old hospital (an option for which there was little public support), the contract was amended to include a feasibility study for four options.
In ealy 2015 the Commissioners held public meetings presenting the four alternatives marked by active and sometimes hostile exchanges. These alternatives created substantial community concern for a number of reasons: inadequacy of the hospital building, public safety issues, lack of attention to modern standards for courtrooms and judicial chambers, and, for the general public, a refusal to consider utilizing the historic courthouse building, the only substantial civic building in Stillwater County eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
During this process Spectrum was involved in a nasty dispute with the Lame Deer School District, and wound up paying $300,000 in a settlement in which an independent audit found a Spectrum design was “unremarkable,” contract documents were “not clear, correct or well-coordinated,” and that Spectrum “charged the school district considerably higher fees…than industry standard.” After this dispute was made public, the Commissioners did not react publicly or issue a comment.
It is worth noting in light of this that Spectrum apparently developed only two of the four options (see their Stillwater County Courthouse feasibility study).
After a May public hearing showing overwhelming support to preserve the historic Courthouse, the Commissioners’ intentions are completely unclear. The issue has been well covered by the Stillwater County News, which reported last July that the Commissioners had delayed active pursuit of the Courthouse project to work on other issues. “As time permits…we’ll get back to the courthouse,” Commissioner Maureen Davey said at the time.
After a lengthy process of planning and public input, here’s where we are: in limbo. The Commissioners have gone silent. There is no existing plan, no budget, and no timetable. Once again, the Commissioners have failed in planning, budgeting and execution of a major project.
Tree cutting on Fiddler Creek Road
On January 31, the Billings Gazette ran an article about a controversy regarding tree cutting along Fiddler Creek Road between Rosebud and Nye. According to the article,
“Some of the residents said they felt like their comments — as well as a petition signed by more than 30 locals — have never been heard. They also said they were upset that they were never informed prior to the tree clearing along Fiddler Creek Road — which in spots extends 150 feet from the road, according to one resident’s account.”
Since that story ran, local residents report that County workers were out in West Rosebud last week, taking down more trees. Residents report that mature trees are being taken with younger ones, and that trimming crews are ignoring right of way restrictions.
This is a dispute that has gone on for several months. For more, see the Stillwater County News.
And what is the County’s position on this? It’s impossible to tell since Commissioner Dell refused to comment, saying the issue has been “hashed out.” It is clear that residents in the area don’t think so.
Who do the Commissioners think they report to?
Stillwater County is small and rural, with about 9,000 residents spread over 1,800 square miles — a population density of about five people per square mile. 3,126 voters participated in the last County Commissioner election in 2014. With people so spread out, communication is difficult and organization almost impossible.
So when nearly 400 people spend two years organizing to protect their land against the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling, you would expect their elected representatives to take that seriously enough to respond to the effort. Or when hundreds of residents and the area’s economy are affected by a County road closure, you would think that a responsive County government faced with difficult options would be able to develop a plan and communicate clearly about how they propose to fix it. Or when there are millions of dollars at stake in upgrading the only substantial civic building in the County that is a historical landmark, you would demand that Commissioners engage in an open process to develop a plan on a public timetable. Or when nearly 50 residents sign petitions and care enough to attend meetings regarding the preservation of the trees around their properties, you would want the County to care enough to make a public comment that explains their actions.
You would expect. You would think. You would demand. You would want. Apparently not in Stillwater County. Who do the Commissioners think they report to anyway?
Stillwater County voters would do well to take note of term expirations. Change is needed, and it is up to voters to make sure competent candidates who are responsive to the voters who elected them are put in office:
- Commissioner Jerry Dell’s seat is up for election in 2016. Dell has announced his retirement, so it is important for a local resident to step and declare for this office.
- Commissioner Dennis Shupak’s seat is up in 2018.
- Commissioner Maureen Davey’s seat is up in 2020.
Find out more:
Oil and gas district:
Map of district
Petition cover memo
Read the petition
List of documents submitted to Commissioners
Peer-reviewed studies of potential harm from oil and gas operations submitted to Commissioners
Stillwater County News, “Protecting the Beartooths from Bakken Problems,” by Richard Hanners, November 12, 2015
Stillwater River Road rockslide:
Preliminary Proposal for Rockfall Stabilization Mediation
Shannon and Wilson proposal for rockfall mediation
Rockslide information: Stillwater River Road (County website)
Stillwater County News:
January 7, 2016
Stillwater County Courthouse:
Stillwater County News:
December 8, 2014
January 8, 2015
January 15, 2015
January 22, 2015
January 22, 2015
February 26, 2015
June 11, 2015
July 16, 2015
August 12, 2015
Stillwater County Courthouse feasibility study prepared by Spectrum Group Architects