As the longstanding fight over the future of the Maclay Bridge continues, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier is being accused of playing favorites.
Supporters of a new South Avenue Bridge say Strohmaier is forwarding their emails to opponents of the new bridge, and is using their feedback to respond to concerns. They claim this is one of a few ways Strohmaier is giving “preferential treatment” to opponents of the South Avenue Bridge.
In reviewing the email strings, the Missoulian confirmed Strohmaier forwarded at least three messages from private citizens to Fred Stewart, one of the leaders of the Maclay Bridge Alliance (MBC), who wants to rehabilitate the existing historical bridge. The messages were forwarded within 10 minutes of receipt by Strohmaier between Jan. 29 and Jan. 31.
Strohmaier also forwarded Stewart an email from former Commissioner Jean Curtiss on Jan. 31, which included her comments. Although her 18 years on the commission ended on Jan. 1, Curtiss is still actively supporting construction of the South Avenue Bridge, while Strohmaier ran on a platform in 2016 that included reconsidering the decision to move forward with the new bridge.
In most of the forwarded emails to Stewart, Strohmaier merely wrote “FYI” or For Your Information.
Strohmaier’s forwarding of the emails upset Michael Burnside, Chuck Beagle and Kristin Anderson, who want the county to finalize the 20-year debate over whether to rehabilitate the historic one-lane Maclay Bridge, which is deemed structurally deficient, or build the new two-lane South Avenue Bridge about half a mile upstream across the Bitterroot River.
One of the forwarded emails was from Burnside, and the trio outlined their concerns in a Feb. 10 letter to Missoula County Commissioners Josh Slotnick and Cola Rowley.
“… we have only recently obtained email records and discovered the appalling and highly biased communication patterns and relationships among Dave Strohmaier, Fred Stewart and the Maclay Bridge Alliance,” the trio wrote. “For example, in less than 10 minutes of receiving one of our recent letters to the BCC (Board of County Commissioners), Mr. Strohmaier had forwarded that message on to Mr. Stewart with MBA for his information and response, which Mr. Stewart promptly replied to and fired back to Mr. Strohmaier for his use.”
Strohmaier said he was only keeping Stewart, a constituent who’s heavily involved as a director of the MBA, up to speed on developments. He added that he certainly wants to hear thoughts and issues from all constituents.
“So when I receive emails, or in this case a comment letter that’s fairly pointedly outlining some reasons why we shouldn’t do a course correction, I certainly want to hear from the other side of the aisle on what those impacts would be,” Strohmaier said. “All the impacts the immediate residents have raised should be addressed, and who better to address than the folks with very different perspectives on the matter?”
However, Strohmaier didn’t forward any emails found from Stewart or Maclay Bridge proponents to Burnside, Beagle, Anderson or other South Avenue Bridge proponents.
Strohmaier said it’s a practice he might follow when issues are raised on other topics, but couldn’t recall doing this in other situations.
“I can’t think of anything offhand, but I can’t rule it out,” Strohmaier said. “Certainly it’s not something that happens to me often because of the nature of what we deal with isn’t as controversial as something like this.”
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Beagle said they also counted anywhere from 80 to 100 email messages between Strohmaier, MBA and Stewart on the bridge issues. In their letter, they write that Strohmaier has alerted MBA members to upcoming meetings to attend, strategized “extensively” with the MBA on their consultant reports and preparations for upcoming meetings, “and in general gave them special access and preferred treatment.”
Beagle said his group wasn’t given the same notice or attention.
“Perhaps we are naïve, but we were honestly shocked and appalled at this extreme behavior from a local official that is reminiscent of national level partisan politics at its worst,” the three wrote in their letter. “The fact that emails to the BCC are quickly forwarded for rebuttal to private citizens puts into question whether the BCC represents all of us.
“There is certainly nothing wrong with privately stating an opinion, but pitting one side in a dispute directly against their neighbors without the latter’s knowledge or consent is inexcusable.”
Stewart said their group tries to be inclusive and open with everything they do, and he guesses that’s why Strohmaier forwarded the emails.
“A lot of those FYI were just providing awareness of what’s going on with this particular process because this is quite important to the community,” Stewart said. “Why he doesn’t send my emails to other folks, I don’t know. But a lot of our stuff shows up on the commissioners’ website.
“But I don’t know why I get the email copies.”
Former commissioner Curtiss said that in her 18 years on the board, she would often forward emails from constituents to staff members who could provide better answers than she could, but forwarding emails from constituents to other private parties on the opposite side of an issue wasn’t a common practice for her or her peers.
Curtiss added that as a decision makers, commissioners need to be careful about “ex parte” communications, where only one side of an interested outside party fully presents their case.
“We’ve been schooled on ex parte communications; that’s something that will influence your decision and you have to discourage it,” Curtiss said.
Commissioner Rowley, whose four years in office currently makes her the longest-serving commissioner in Missoula, said she can’t say she’s never forwarded emails from private citizens to those with opposing viewpoints, but couldn’t recall doing so.
Still, she defended Strohmaier, reiterating that all correspondence sent to the county is public information, and that he probably was only trying to glean as much information from a variety of sources.
“Dave is a deliberative decision maker who is passionate about serving his community and I hope that comes through,” Rowley said. “We are a young commission, figuring thing out, like how we work together and how we communicate with our constituents.”