This West Is OUR West

After suit threat, FWP discloses $137,500 settlement with former Montana State Parks administrator

 

TOM KUGLIN tom.kuglin@helenair.com

Nov 27, 2017

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks settled with the former administrator of Montana State Parks for $137,500 and agreed to purge certain disciplinary matters from his employee file, newly released documents say.

In September, the Independent Record learned of and requested information about FWP reaching a settlement with former Parks chief Chas Van Genderen. Van Genderen was terminated last year by former FWP Director Jeff Hagener for reasons that have not been disclosed.

The agency confirmed the existence of the settlement, but declined to release additional information citing employee privacy concerns. The settlement includes a confidentiality agreement.

After the agency's refusal to release the settlement, an attorney for the Independent Record entered into discussions with FWP’s legal counsel. The Independent Record contended that such settlements by statute are public records and the agency was legally bound to disclose this one.

Rather than see the state fight a potentially expensive legal battle, Van Genderen’s attorney, Eric Holm, said he decided to waive his right to privacy, paving the way for the settlement’s release. Van Genderen would fight the release of other records, Holm said, but was interested in putting the issue behind him.

Holm declined to comment on the settlement amount and other conditions of the agreement.

Per the settlement, Van Genderen agreed to withdraw complaints filed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and grievances with the Board of Personnel Appeals.

In exchange, FWP agreed to the payment, purging of disciplinary records identified by Van Genderen’s attorney and to conduct business in a manner that does not discriminate or retaliate against those alleging discrimination.

Van Genderen agreed to give up any further claims.

FWP admits no liability in the settlement.

Both parties agree to not make any disparaging statements or allegations about each other for 10 years.

Martha Sheehy, an attorney representing the Independent Record, believes state public records law is clear, particularly when it comes to expenditures of state money.

“The IR always asserted that it should’ve been released all along,” she said. “That was the basis of our request for disclosure and we stated our intent to file a lawsuit if necessary to obtain the settlement agreement.

“The release of the document in this case, I think it demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge the public’s right to know."

Independent Record Editor Jesse Chaney said that while he was disappointed FWP initially declined to release the settlement agreement, he was glad the agency complied with the request after the newspaper communicated its intention to file suit.

“Montanans have a right to know how the state is spending money, especially when it involves a six-figure payout to a former high-ranking employee amid a budget shortfall. We will continue to fight for transparency within state agencies so the people can effectively evaluate the performance of the government leaders who are there to represent them,” he said.

FWP Director Martha Williams, an attorney and former law professor, said that while she was not directly involved in the negotiations, she continues to believe the settlement is confidential employee information if privacy is not waived. Once Van Genderen waived his right to privacy, the agency did not have a reason to withhold the information, she said.

Williams said she believed FWP had a strong case, but entering into a settlement “was more compelling to allow us to move forward,” with Montana State Parks.

Earlier this year the parks division came under scrutiny from lawmakers and the media due to millions of dollars that went unspent despite a sizable maintenance backlog.

Parks continued to make headlines as a bill to give the division more autonomy was met with a governor’s veto, and more recently when Gov. Steve Bullock dismissed the chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, alleging that he lobbied for the legislation and against the administration’s directive.

Parks recently named Beth R. Shumate as Van Genderen’s successor as administrator and Bullock launched an initiative focused on strengthening support and exploring additional funding.

In addition to cuts that came during the regular legislative session, parks again saw its funding cut by $250,000 in the recent special session. That cut will mean scaling back planned road work at Makoshika State Park, FWP chief of administration Dustin Temple said.

In regard to the settlement, the $137,500 comes out of the division’s cash under FWP’s existing management spending authority, and will not have a direct impact to operations on the ground, he said.