Missoula County commissioners say they don’t have supervisory powers over County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, and on Wednesday they expect to tell the Department of Justice that and more.
Commissioners Jean Curtiss, Bill Carey and Michele Landquist will decide at their 10 a.m. administrative meeting whether to approve a draft letter to Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter. It’s in response to Cotter’s request last week to chat with commissioners about his office’s standoff with the recalcitrant county attorney.
Van Valkenburg refused to cooperate with a federal investigation into his office’s handling of sexual assault reports and filed suit last month in U.S. District Court for a declaratory judgment challenging the DOJ’s authority over his office.
“While we are certainly in favor of a negotiated or mediated settlement of this case, we do not believe we have any statutory or constitutional authority to impose such a settlement on the county attorney. As you know, under Montana law … only the Montana attorney general has supervisory powers over county attorneys,” reads the letter.
The county released the proposed draft Tuesday afternoon in conjunction with its administrative public meeting agenda for Wednesday.
Commissioners aren’t a party to Van Valkenburg’s litigation and “believe that any settlement needs to be worked out with Mr. Van Valkenburg through his counsel,” the letter says.
The commission has come under heat for releasing $50,000 from the county general fund for Van Valkenburg to hire attorney Natasha Jones of the Missoula firm Boone Karlberg to pursue the lawsuit.
Landquist has since gone on record opposing the allocation given new information that the DOJ agreed at the outset of the investigation to share with the state attorney general’s office evidence of new sexual assault cases that came to light. Landquist believes the agreement signaled the attorney general’s approval of the federal investigation, information that Van Valkenburg withheld from commissioners.
Wednesday’s letter will encourage Cotter to respond to Van Valkenburg’s letter of Jan. 9, itself a response to settlement terms Cotter’s office proposed in December. It also urges the DOJ to provide Attorney General Tim Fox with the new evidence of sexual assault cases, as agreed upon.
“We know that Mr. Van Valkenburg and his staff are committed to taking steps, along with community partners, to improve services to victims of sexual assault,” the draft says. “We will continue to support and encourage the Missoula county attorney’s efforts in this regard.”
That’s where their responsibilities lie, to provide effective services to victims of violent crimes, commissioners write. Their draft letter outlines nine ways in which they’re doing that.
They include supporting and funding the county’s crime victim advocate office and voluntary collaborative efforts between that office and Van Valkenburg’s “to establish policies and procedures requiring communication related to plea agreements.”
The draft letter expresses support for Van Valkenburg in working with community partners, including First Step, and for current efforts to combine that multi-disciplinary program with Just Response, a coordinated community response to intimate partner violence.
The support extends to Van Valkenburg’s requests for continuing legal training for his attorneys and to his agreement to participate in a safety and accountability audit for sexual assault response that the DOJ is overseeing with the city of Missoula and the University of Montana.
Commissioners say they also support a memorandum of understanding Van Valkenburg entered into with the Missoula Police Department that provides for prioritized review of sexual assault cases by prosecutors and written communication regarding reasons for declining cases.
An ongoing renovation of the county courthouse includes construction of a “soft” interview room for victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes, the draft letter points out.
It concludes that, while they take seriously their responsibilities to serve crime victims, commissioners are “fully aware that there are improvements to be made.”
“Missoula County is committed to providing better support to crime victims and holding offenders accountable. We are eager to stand with the community of service providers to make any necessary improvements to those services,” the draft says.