Personnel files and the sheriff race

Thursday, May 17, 2018

SCN Editorial

For the first time since 1989, Stillwater County will have a new sheriff at the beginning of 2019.

This is a big deal. And the News has been treating it as such in our coverage of the two candidates, which will conclude in less than three weeks with the June 5 primary election, as both are running as Republicans.

Recently, the News came under fire by Columbus City Attorney Doug Howard for requesting the personnel files of candidates Chip Kem and Gary Timm.

To clear up any confusion, a personnel file is one maintained by an employer that contains documents and records concerning hiring, compensation, promotions, training and disciplinary actions related to someone’s work.

When asked, Kem gave immediate verbal (and later written) permission for the release of his file. The contents of that file were reported on in last week’s issue.

After a week of communication with the News regarding the legality of the issue, Timm also gave written consent to release his personnel file. And that’s all it should have taken for Timm’s file to be released, according to Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in Freedom of Information law and provides legal guidance to members of the Montana Newspaper Association.

But that did not happen.

Instead, Howard blocked the release of Timm’s file pending a court order, telling the City Council at a public meeting that he was “troubled” by the request for the following reasons:

•None of the other candidates running for office in Stillwater County were asked for their personnel files.

•It wasn’t fair to compare officers’ personnel files due to factors such as strict versus lenient bosses and length of employment differences.

•Political candidates should be free of a personnel file problem interfering with the candidate’s message.

•He does not believe Timm’s written consent was done so voluntarily.

The reason why the sheriff candidates were the only candidates asked for personnel records is two-fold:

1. They are the only candidates who actually have personnel files. The remaining candidates are private citizens, with the exception of one incumbent, who is an elected public official.

2. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that police officers are public employees vested with the public trust. Because of this, they have a diminished right of privacy concerning personnel matters. This sets the sheriff’s race apart from the other county political races.

Stillwater County has two veteran officers seeking the highest law enforcement position in the county. It is the News’ job to give the voters all the information it can on both candidates. To only report what each candidate is highlighting in his campaign is ridiculous.

Personnel files provide unbiased, third party assessments about each man’s career that could be important when voting. It’s hard to imagine a better tool to see exactly what kind of cop someone has been throughout his or her career.

And with each candidate consenting, this should not have even been an issue. If Timm’s consent was not voluntary, he should not have provided the News with the written consent that he did.