Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey left his duties for five weeks in late 2012 with no explanation to the public.
Last week, Carey said he sought treatment for a medical condition he intends to keep a private matter. A fellow commissioner, however, confirmed Carey’s departure was linked to alcohol consumption, a claim Carey declined to confirm or deny.
“My life isn’t an open book just because I’m an elected official,” Carey said. “It’s my own personal business.”
Carey, a Democrat first elected to the Missoula Board of County Commissioners in 1998, quietly returned to his post in early 2013. Local government regulars noted the lengthy departure, however, and word since spread that his absence was related to the use of alcohol.
In response to a question, Commissioner Michele Landquist confirmed Carey left the job due to a medical emergency linked to drinking. She said she did not want to breach her colleague’s privacy, but she wanted to be direct in her answer.
“I think that the reason he got so sick was because of alcohol consumption, but I don’t know if it was necessarily alcohol abuse,” Landquist said. “I think over time, grain alcohol sometimes takes its toll on you.”
In an interview, Carey strongly defended his right to medical confidentiality, and he declined to address the details of his treatment. He also maintained he has remained capable of executing his duties, aside from the weeks he spent away from the office, including two holiday weeks he said are not busy for the county.
“Alcoholism is rampant in this society, and I think it takes, oh, I don’t know, some luck and some determination to get a handle on it,” Carey said. “But for me, that’s not the point. The point is, do I have any privacy rights at all? Especially regarding medical matters?”
He would not address whether his comments about alcoholism referred to himself. He also said trying to define what constitutes a drinking problem is “a slippery slope.”
“Try getting a definition from people of what a drinking problem is. It’s across the board,” Carey said.
Public affairs analysts disagreed that elected officials can remain sealed behind closed doors; rather, electeds surrender some of their privacy rights, and the public has a right to know its representatives are able to perform in office. Political analyst G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, also said constituents deserve to know when elected officers take leave.
“(If this commissioner) just simply was absent without an explanation to the public about why he missed duties and missed meetings, that’s wrong,” Madonna said. “That doesn’t pass anybody’s public accountability smell test.”
Carey, who earns a yearly salary of $73,400, said he did not sense his absence disrupted county government at all.
“I think it becomes a public issue when a public official isn’t able to do their job for a significant amount of time,” he said.
He would be the first to admit it, were that the case, he said. “I’m not a dishonest person. I work, and I follow the rules.”
Carey declined to comment on whether he sought treatment for the use of alcohol during his leave. He also stressed he reserves his right to medical privacy.
“Whatever I was suffering from, it’s my business. That’s the way a civil society works,” he said.
Carey said he was out of the office for five weeks, but it did not occur to him to let constituents know he would be gone for more than a month or to reveal the reason for his absence. He said he did not request fellow commissioners, also Democrats, keep the matter quiet, but he said “the assumption is that kind of thing would be confidential.”
“Folks here were very supportive of my situation, very, very supportive,” Carey said.
The commissioners were not overwhelmed with work at the time, he said, and they largely agree on matters, too. “It’s one thing if you had a set of commissioners who were always fighting and there was a controversial vote, but that’s not the way we do business.”
Other commissioners vouched for Carey’s competence and said his absence did not take a toll on them. Commission chairwoman Jean Curtiss said the decision to come forward or keep information private was Carey’s alone; she did not attempt to sway him one way or the other.
“I think that people’s personal lives and especially their personal medical issues are private,” Curtiss said. “Some people are comfortable sharing, some aren’t. So it didn’t even cross my mind to ask him.”
Commissioner Landquist, too, said Carey always has been engaged in the job. She said he had complained of fatigue, but she had not suspected he had any health problems before he collapsed, underwent an emergency medical procedure, and spent some time healing in Washington with a family member.
“I just felt bad that he was feeling tired,” Landquist said.
Political scientist James Lopach agreed the Montana Constitution affords elected officials some privacy rights. However, he also said the public has the right to judge politicians in order to reward them with support or punish them with removal.
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“In order for the people to hold their officials accountable, they do need good information,” said Lopach, a political science professor retired from the University of Montana.
County commissioners operate as the executive body as well as – to a limited degree – a legislative body, so they are like the mayor and Missoula City Council rolled into one, he said. And he said commissioners should be open about the way they handle a lengthy absence of one of their members.
“They shouldn’t be functioning just as a private family keeping everything internal,” Lopach said.
Madonna, with the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said he would be willing to take an elected officer’s word that he competently served in office before and after treatment, and a generic explanation an absence was due to “medical treatment” might be adequate. However, he said public officials elected by constituents relinquish some privacy rights, and they should disclose medical, psychological or addiction problems that possibly affect their work.
“If you have a serious problem that potentially impairs your judgment, I don’t think you have any choice but to be candid with the public,” Madonna said.
Carey maintains his medical problem does not affect his job.
According to Lopach, one problem for Missoula County is the absence of a charter, which could serve as a guide in the case of lengthy absences by elected officers; it also could include specific removal, impeachment and recall provisions. A Local Government Study Commission recommended the adoption of a charter in 2004, but voters rejected the idea.
Steve Johnson, chief operating officer for Missoula County, said absences are typically handled informally by the Board of County Commissioners. He said commissioners continue to receive salaries when absent for vacation or illness, he does not believe they are required to track their time, and the county does not limit the number of paid vacation or sick days commissioners may take in a year.
“We don’t have any standards that we apply to elected officials in those situations,” Johnson said.
The county functions as an administrative arm of the state, and he said whether those standards should be in place is a question for the Montana Legislature.
Time and again, the public shows itself to be wholly sympathetic to politicians who are open about their limitations.
“There’s no doubt about that. I’ve covered campaigns for 30 years,” said Madonna, also a pollster and political historian. “The public is not cruel about this stuff. They understand.”
On the other hand, he said the lack of candor creates a perception an official is hiding something from the public.
Commissioner Carey flatly disagrees he is obligated to be open. He said he is focused on the future, and he plans to continue working on issues such as cooperative housing for seniors.
“I’m betting there are more people out there who are willing to take the position that if a person is ill, they have the right to keep the nature of that illness as a private family matter unless it impacts a person’s ability to do a job,” Carey said.
In recent years, a couple other Montana politicians chose to discuss sensitive information with their constituents. When former Missoula city councilwoman Pam Walzer was charged with driving under the influence in 2010, she called and emailed the mayor and council president the same night, she called other council members the following day, and she made a public statement about her remorse.
“People are going to find out, so you might as well fess up right away,” said Walzer, who pleaded guilty to a DUI per se. “If I blew it, I blew it, and that’s just how I’ve always worked.”
A DUI charge is a matter of public record, but the Democrat said she likely would have made the decision to disclose it regardless. Disclosure comes with discomfort, she said, but it’s best if the public hears such information from the source.
“Each one of us is human, and each one of us has the ability to make mistakes and have flaws, flaws in our character where we can still do our job just as well or better than others,” Walzer said. “But we are held to a higher standard, to be more accountable.”
Last June, Montana Public Service Commissioner Bill Gallagher was diagnosed with early stage pancreatic cancer. The Republican commissioner said he reserves his right to privacy, but in this case, he took a short time to get his legs under him and released word to the public in a matter of days.
“I have a boss, and it’s the people who elected me,” said Gallagher, of Helena.
As an elected commissioner, he considers himself accountable to the public, and he presumes he should be forthcoming about matters that potentially affect his ability to do the job. Elected officials may feel “undressed a little bit” at times, but he said it comes with the environment.
“Certainly, if you wait and you delay and it comes out anyway, then you have the secondary question about forthrightness,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher opted out of seeking another term, but he is optimistic his health will allow him to finish the remainder of his current one. He had a fiduciary responsibility to share his condition with the public, he said, and he did so.
“The benefit of doing that is you’re no longer in a vacuum. You’ve got that support,” Gallagher said. “I’ve been particularly grateful for the prayers and words of encouragement, and there have been hundreds and hundreds that have manifested in a whole variety of ways, and still do.”