Bridger Canyon trustees defend emergency meeting


BOZEMAN, Mont. - A group of residents fighting Bridger Canyon fire trustees say emails sent between board members show they violated the State's open meeting policy.

The Bridger Canyon Safety Coalition is attempting a recall of all five board members. This started in November of 2012 when firefighters protested a plan that would have allowed alcohol in the station's community room.

In March of 2013 the fire chief and more than a dozen other firefighters quit abruptly, citing differences with the board.

Then the Gallatin County Sheriff's Department launched a criminal investigation into the board after allegations were brought against them.

The Safety Coalition obtained more than 2,500 pages of emails sent between the board of trustees. In those emails, they claim there's evidence that the board violated Montana's open meeting laws.

We met with the Safety Coalition Friday morning to address the emails. While they wouldn't speak to us on camera, a representative for the coalition says the emails show that the board, "Use board meetings to share only the info they choose to, and prevent active participation in decision making."

We spent the last two days going over the emails and we brought these concerns and emails directly to the Bridger Canyon Fire Department board of trustees to get their side of the story.

The Safety Coalition points to a specific meeting that took place just hours after then Chief Dan Astrom and a majority of the firefighters quit.

Bridger Canyon fire trustees chairman Mike Conn tells us they had to schedule a meeting quickly because the resignations created an emergency situation.

Conn told us, "My opinion was this was most definitely an emergency. A very serious emergency, I might add."

The meeting was scheduled with not more than 12 hours notice, according to an email between the board and Bill Hanson, the board's attorney.

But the Safety Coalition contends the board knew the resignations were coming and failed to act. In an email sent by former Fire Chief Dan Astrom to the board of trustees the night of May 20, 2013, Astrom claims that 17 firefighters would be resigining as of May 22 at 7 p.m.

Conn says, "We didn't know it was a done deal, so to speak. And that these people had the intention of walking out on the residents of the canyon."

We checked Montana law -- open meeting laws do not contain explicit notice reqirements. Typically it's 48 hours for a county commission meeting, but how much notice should be weighed with the relative significance to what's being discussed, and it does allow for emergency exceptions.

Conn claims efforts were continually made to hold mediation between the board and the firefighters in hopes of keeping them on after they resigned on May 22.

Board member Peggy Foster elaborated, "That mediation offered would be open until the next morning at 7 o'clock."

Conn added, "As far as we were concerned, we weren't giving up."

But the board tells NBC Montana that no firefighters responded by the next morning. Although meetings of the board are normally required to come with a 48-hour notice to allow for public comment, Foster told us, "There was no time."

It is the dispute over what the board knew and when, and their decision to hold the meeting, that the Bridger Canyon Fire Department Safety Coalition says makes the meeting a violation of public meeting laws.

Foster said, "I can only speak for myself. but I think ever since I've been on the board I've fought to have open meetings."

NBC Montana contacted Sheriff Brian Gootkin to clarify whether alleged violations of open meeting laws was one of the reasons he forwarded a request for prosecution to the Gallatin County Attorney. He would not tell us that it was specifically related to the open meeting laws.

We also checked with the county attorney, and as of now no charges have been filed.