Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier is being asked to recuse himself from discussions over the South Avenue Bridge after being accused of having a conflict of interest.
In a letter presented Tuesday, members of the Bitterroot Bridges Coalition say Strohmaier has engaged in county activities on behalf of the Maclay Bridge Alliance, calling him a “de facto” member of that group. The MBA opposes construction of the South Avenue Bridge, instead seeking rehabilitation of the existing one-lane Maclay Bridge.
The coalition claims Strohmaier’s efforts to put the brakes on the South Avenue Bridge project, without disclosing his alleged conflicts of interest, “give rise to an appearance of impropriety and reveal a significant bias on his part that directly influences the development of public policies on land use and of county budgets for roads and bridges.”
The coalition plans to present their four-page complaint letter to the county attorney’s office for review.
Strohmaier hadn’t read the letter during the 1 ½-hour South Avenue Bridge meeting in which it was presented, and said afterward that he wasn’t planning on stepping away from the issue.
“At this juncture, I have no reason to believe I should recuse myself for this or for any other position for which I campaigned on and have views that I believe are in the best interest of the public,” Strohmaier said.
Specifically, the letter claims that Strohmaier relied on reports from engineers not licensed to do work in Montana and were paid by the MBA to question the conclusions of publicly funded studies, and “to, in effect, lobby for MBA’s interests” in meetings with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Those agencies are overseeing the process and paying the estimated $12 million cost for the South Avenue Bridge, which would replace the Maclay Bridge about half a mile upstream from it.
The long-debated project was first proposed in 1994, putting a new two-lane bridge across the Bitterroot River at the western end of South Avenue, to connect with River Pines Road on the west side of the river. Along with safety concerns on its width, the historic Maclay Bridge also has significant weight limitations.
Strohmaier has worked closely with the Maclay Bridge supporters, routinely forwarding them emails from the South Avenue Bridge proponents. The bridge supporters claim Strohmaier was coached by MBA members and regularly posed their questions to the firm the county hired to perform engineering studies for the state and federal agencies.
In addition, the Bitterroot Bridges Coalition says Strohmaier repeatedly offered to meet with MBA co-founders privately, attend their meetings, and edit their newsletter.
Coalition members said they counted between 80 to 100 email messages between Strohmaier and MBA members on the bridge issues.
“No other citizens or interested parties have received the same or any similar treatment by Commissioner Strohmaier,” the coalition wrote. “There may be other ex parte communications between Commissioner (Strohmaier) and members of MBA that we are not yet aware of.”
Ex parte is a legal term in which only one side of an interested party fully presents their case outside of legal hearings.
Previously, Strohmaier said he was only keeping his constituents up to speed on developments, and he welcomes thoughts and ideas from everyone he represents as a commissioner.
The coalition wrote that Montana Ethical Requirements of Public Officers requires them to disclose personal or private interest conflicts that give rise to an appearance of impropriety before participating in an official action, and are prohibited from lobbying on behalf of an organization.
“Commissioner Strohmaier’s actions give rise not only to the appearance of impropriety but demonstrate a pattern of bias that disqualifies him from participating in any decisions of the Board of County Commissioners regarding Maclay Bridge and the South Avenue Bridge,” they wrote. “Like other land use planning decisions, local government decisions must be based on their merits and on evidence and information presented in the public record before the local government and not through ex parte, off the public record lobbying efforts.”