Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has reached a settlement with former Montana State Parks administrator Chas Van Genderen, but will not release details or documents related to the agreement.
FWP confirmed the existence of the settlement but says personnel privacy concerns preclude it from releasing more information. The settlement includes a confidentiality clause, FWP's chief legal counsel Becky Dockter said.
Van Genderen was terminated last year by outgoing FWP director Jeff Hagener. The agency has not publicly discussed the reason for the dismissal, nor has it confirmed that Van Genderen was fired, although the termination was confirmed by multiple sources including members of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board.
FWP director Martha Williams declined to comment on the settlement Thursday.
A message left Wednesday with Van Genderen’s attorney seeking comment was not returned.
Williams, who advocated transparency and accountability to legislators earlier this year, said Thursday that decisions to enter into confidential settlements that protect employee privacy are balanced with the public’s constitutional right to know.
Williams is an attorney and was most recently a law professor at the University of Montana.
Martha Sheehy, an attorney representing the Independent Record, said the state cannot deny access to the records without clearly demonstrating why an individual's privacy exceeds the merits of public disclosure in this case. In an email to Dockter, Sheehy noted that the Montana Supreme Court rejected attempts to seal a settlement agreement between a private citizen and the state in the 2000 case Pengra v. State of Montana.
"The Montana Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public officials have little if any privacy interests in matters concerning their public duties," she wrote, noting that the Montana Constitution and case law both provide "clear legal authority" for disclosure of the agreement with Van Genderen.
When asked about public access to state settlements, Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in open government law, said by email simply that “state settlements are public records.”
FWP maintains that state statutes make personal injury or property settlements public records, but not those related to personnel matters.
Van Genderen had filed a grievance with the state, but Dockter would not say if the settlement came as a result.
Speaking generally about settlement payouts, Dockter said the funds typically come from general license dollars or specific programs.
News of the settlement is the latest development in a series of shake-ups with the Montana State Parks division.
Following Van Genderen’s departure ahead of the 2017 Legislature, lawmakers and media outlets began analyzing the division’s finances. Parks had more than $11.2 million unspent in its ending fund balance, while also facing a structurally imbalanced budget after projections indicated the division will spend more than it receives in the future.
Current FWP officials told legislators that they could not determine why decisions were made that led to the high ending fund balance, as multiple people who may have been involved in those decisions have left the agency.
During the 2017 Legislative Session, House Bill 324 sought to take away authority of the FWP director to hire and fire the state parks administrator and give that responsibility to the board. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.
News about Montana State Parks remained relatively quiet for months as FWP worked internally to revise the budget.
Then on Aug. 15, the regular board meeting was abruptly canceled at the behest of the governor’s office.
About a week later Bullock announced the dismissal of board chairman Tom Towe, while vice chair Mary Sexton resigned. Both had been among the most publicly outspoken members, while Towe broke with the administration in supporting HB 324.
Sexton was recently appointed chair of the executive board for Montana Democrats. She was asked to resign with two years left in her term. She told The Billings Gazette that she respected the governor’s decision to move forward with a new group.
Towe, of Billings, saw his board service terminated after he did not step down at the governor’s request. Towe, an attorney, said the law is clear that he could not be terminated without cause and a formal hearing. He said at the time and reaffirmed to The Gazette on Thursday that he has not decided his next move.
In addition to appointing four new board members, Bullock directed FWP to create an advisory board to help the parks board build and implement a new vision for parks, as outlined in its 2020 strategic plan.