Christoffersen, Commissioners Voice Opinions During Court Hearing
Attorney Janet Christoffersen and the Roosevelt County Commissioners each testified during a lengthly hearing as Christoffersen seeks a preliminary injunction barring Roosevelt County from any action prohibiting her from performing the duties of Roosevelt County Attorney.
At the end of the about 3½-hour hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 6, Judge Michael Moses requested that the parties submit their supplemental findings by Wednesday, Sept. 13. Closing arguments should also be contained in those filings.
At debate is whether during a public meeting on Feb. 9, there was an agreement made on a fourmonth interim contract. Commissioners decided not to expand the contract during a meeting in June.
Megan Wampler, representing Christoffersen, argued that Christoffersen never entered into a legal contract and, by Montana statute, the commissioners don’t have the authority to replace an appointed county attorney.
Wampler said whether or not the commissioners believe they could appoint her to a four-month interim contract is irrelevant.
“Commissioners can’t change the law...,” Wampler said.
Christoffersen testified that she offered her services for at least four months. She said that during discussions with commissioners, it was determined that a contract wouldn’t work legally.
“There were no terms or discussions,” she said. She believes the understanding was to see how the arrangement went for four months and whether she liked it or if the county could find somebody else.
Christoffersen, testifying on video conference, said the decision by the commissioners to move on came as a surprise to her. She said she repeatedly told them that she was going to stay on.
Attorney Stephanie Oblander, representing the county, noted that the official minutes from the Feb. 9 meeting show that the appointment was for a four-month term. Oblander’s services are being paid by the Montana Association of Counties.
Oblander said there were several attorneys and a district judge at the meeting and none of them expressed any concern that the appointment wasn’t legal.
She also claimed that the county’s pursuit of a different county attorney was obstructed by Christoffersen.
Oblander pointed out that Christoffersen didn’t attend the public meeting held on June 29 to discuss her position.
“I had no idea they were going to do it,” Christoffersen said of the commissioners’ decision. “I was under the assumption that if I wanted to stay, I could stay.”
Christoffersen said changes that she attempted to make was following job descriptions by Montana statute such as having the treasurer’s office handle tax deeds instead of the attorney’s office. Another example was having the clerk and recorder’s office rather than the DES coordinator or legal assistant take minutes at commissioner’s meetings.
Oblander said there haven’t been any consequences of Christoffersen not being in the office. She said law enforcement or the community haven’t expressed many concerns.
Commissioner Gordon Oelkers’ testimony included that the only concerns he encountered was at a separate meeting shortly after the June decision that he had with attorney office’s staff and sheriff’s office officials regarding their concerns about the county’s immediate plans.
Former county legal assistant Erica Fyfe testified that she was told by two commissioners, Oelkers and Gary Macdonald, that once Christoffersen was appointed, they couldn’t remove her. Fyfe claimed that one commissioner said that if they removed her, it would be a lawsuit ready to happen.
Macdonald testified that an agreement of four months was made during the Feb. 9 meeting.
When asked if he would be surprised that the agreement wasn’t following Montana statute, Macdonald replied, “With the judge and another lawyer sitting there, I would assume at least the judge would have spoken up.”
Macdonald said he considered it a verbal contract.
He described the working relationship between commissioners and Christoffersen as poor.
When Wampler asked Macdonald if he felt it was right for the attorney’s office to perform duties that should be handle by different offices, he said he believed that’s the way it has been done for at least 24 years.
Commissioner Robert Toavs testified that the understanding was that it was for a four-month interim position.
Toavs’ feeling during the February meeting was Roosevelt County better have somebody ready at the end of four months. He said the biggest focus was how to make it an interim appointment. He said the commissioners were highly pressured to get someone in place because the district judge said “court will go on.”
Toavs added that he felt Christoffersen didn’t want the position long time and she was waiting to get her license in Utah.
Montana Deputy Attorney General David Ortley provided information how his office looked into the matter. The determination was that an agreement for hiring an acting county attorney could be put in place, with a specific start and ending date, to assist the county.
“They needed to do something immediately,” Ortley said of the county’s decision in February.
Wampler questioned Ortley if he was aware of any Montana statute that allows for a contract for any period of time for a county attorney or if there’s a statute available to fill a position by contract. Ortley answered that he did not.
Judge Moses asked Ortley if he came across any case research for commissioners to contract for a county attorney. Ortley said he doesn’t recall seeing any cases.
Commissioner Oelkers said the quick decision in February was made “to keep the boat afloat.”
Oelkers said that when Christoffersen was on medical leave, he had Fyfe provide information about the county attorney’s responsibilities in order to advertise the position. Once Christoffersen returned, she told Oelkers that she wasn’t leaving the position and asked Oelkers not to instruct Fyfe to do anything else.
“I never stated ever that it wasn’t until the next election cycle in a year and a half,” Oelkers said of the agreement with Christoffersen.
He said commissioners try to get as much information as possible so they make correct, legal decisions.
“It was always an interim position in my mind,” Oelkers said.