A dismissal letter for the former chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board says he was removed because of his support for a bill Gov. Steve Bullock's office opposed.
On a split vote Wednesday, a legislative interim committee decided to send a letter asking the governor to explain why he dismissed Tom Towe from the board. The governor's staff gave the Independent Record a copy of Towe's dismissal letter in response to a follow-up inquiry.
Bullock terminated Towe's appointment last month, after the board chairman was apparently asked and refused to resign. At the same time, the administration announced the appointment of four new members to the board and a “State Parks in Focus” initiative examining long-term funding and building support for the parks system.
Towe told The Billings Gazette in August he believed that he could not be terminated without cause and a hearing.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, made Wednesday's motion to have the Environmental Quality Council draft a letter asking Bullock why Towe was dismissed without a public hearing.
“I think Mr. Towe is due that explanation, and if we could help move that along I think it would be beneficial to both the public and Mr. Towe,” he said.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, penned a similar letter last month. White said she had not received a response, though the governor's office says it provided one.
Some Democrats on the committee questioned the body’s authority over the matter but one Democrat, Rep. Brad Hamlett of Cascade, cautioned that the removal could have a chilling effect on public participation in appointed bodies.
“We don’t want citizens of Montana to think if they voluntarily give up their time to the state of Montana to decide issues of importance for the state, that they’ll be terminated without cause,” he said. “This is very serious.”
The committee asked its legal counsel Jameson Walker for an opinion. Walker cited a Montana Supreme Court decision saying that the dismissal of an appointee can come for “reasons for the law and sound public policy.” Whether Towe is entitled to a hearing is more complex, Walker said, but that under the court’s decision, dismissal should “probably provide notice and a hearing.”
The dismissal letter provided by Bullock's office cited Towe's support for a bill that Hamlett introduced as the reason for removal.
House Bill 324 would have provided Montana State Parks more autonomy from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks by attaching it to the agency for administrative purposes only. Hiring and firing of the parks division administrator would have also shifted from the FWP director to the board.
The administration opposed the bill throughout the legislative process, and Bullock ended up vetoing it.
During the legislative session, Towe appeared before lawmakers as an informational witness. But during a Senate hearing over the bill, Towe’s statements and apparent support for HB324 led the chair to declare him a proponent.
“The administration’s decision to oppose HB324 was communicated to the Board, which you chair,” the dismissal letter says. “Despite being informed of that decision, you testified in favor of the legislation in committee and lobbied members of the Legislature to support the bill.”
“Your actions violated the policies governing your service on the board and directly contradicted the position of the executive branch. You engaged in this conduct even though throughout this time, you met with the Director of FWP and members of the Governor’s staff, and you were informed of the administration’s decision."
The actions disrupted the board’s ability to move forward, the letter states.
In an emailed response, Bullock’s communications director Ronja Abel said the governor respects Towe and his service and is working with him to develop potential future partnerships.
When asked about the right to a hearing, Abel reiterated that Towe met with FWP staff, the governor’s staff and the governor.
Hamlett told the committee that he felt bad if Towe’s dismissal came due to support of his bill.
“I feel really bad about that because I think people ought to be able to speak freely,” he said.
An email sent to Towe Wednesday afternoon was not returned in time for this story.
The committee also took updates on a performance audit, which will dissect operations and governance of Montana State Parks in the coming months.
Montana State Parks became a major topic during the last session after lawmakers and the media began looking into the division’s finances. Balance sheets showed the division was not spending all of the money it had despite major maintenance and building needs, and had accrued more than $11 million in the bank.
FWP has said some funding for operations went inexplicably unspent while funding for capital projects was also unspent, even as the division unsuccessfully sought general fund money and state bonding for building projects in recent years. Employee turnover and personnel privacy policies prevents a full public explanation, the agency has said.
Towe was outspoken on the need for additional parks funding and a supporter of the former parks administrator, who was also terminated by FWP and recently entered into a confidential settlement with the state.