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Governor still mum on tribal law enforcement in Lake County

by JUSTIN FRANZ Montana Free Press
| February 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Officials in Lake County say the clock is ticking for the state to assume felony law enforcement duties on the Flathead Indian Reservation, but so far they’ve heard nothing from Gov. Greg Gianforte.

In November, the Lake County Commission sent a letter to Gianforte informing him that the local sheriff’s office and criminal justice system would no longer handle felony law enforcement on the reservation under what is called Public Law 280. The agreement between the state and tribe is one-of-a-kind in Montana. Under the law, the governor has six months to make a proclamation releasing Lake County of its duties. But more than two months after notifying the governor that it wanted out, the county has had no conversations with the state about what law enforcement there would look like in the future. 

“We have heard nothing,” Commissioner Gale Decker told Montana Free Press this week. “The clock is ticking and [the deadline of] May 20th is going to be here really soon.” 

At the root of Decker’s frustration is the fact that many logistical issues need to be sorted out if Lake County is indeed going to give up its previous law enforcement duties on the reservation. 

“What do we do with the inmates who are tribal members? What do we do with felony prosecutions already in the works? We just have a lot of questions,” he said. 

Since the 1960s, most law enforcement on the northwest Montana reservation has been handled locally, rather than by federal officers. Lake County’s justice system handles felony crimes, and (since the 1990s) the tribal system handles misdemeanors. Officials, including Lake County Sheriff Don Bell, said the agreement has been successful because things don’t fall through the cracks like they might with federal agents from out of town.

But for the last few years, officials in Lake County have said fulfilling those law enforcement duties has wreaked havoc on its budget. According to the county, the agreement is costing local taxpayers more than $4 million annually. In years past, county officials said the bill was easier to pay thanks to taxes generated by the SKQ Dam, but once the dam was sold to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that revenue dried up. There was also no way for Lake County to pull out of the agreement establishing Public Law 280; only the state or tribe could. 

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts in the Legislature to get the state to help foot the bill. In 2021, one of those passed, but the state only appropriated $1 to the cause. However, that bill did give the county a mechanism to pull out of the agreement, which it is now exercising. Last year, House Bill 479 would have authorized the state to pay $2.5 million annually for two years to Lake County. But despite passing both chambers, Gianforte vetoed it. In his veto letter, the governor — who in the past has hailed the Public Law 280 agreement as a success — said the county wanted all the benefits of the agreement without having to pay for it. But the county sees it differently, arguing that since the state entered into the agreement with the tribe, it’s the state’s responsibility to cover the costs. 

The county has tried other ways to get the state to help pay, including filing a lawsuit last year. That suit ultimately failed, but the judge did encourage the county to pull out of the agreement. 

“If the financial burden Lake County bears is unacceptable, which by all accounts it appears to be, its remedy is to withdraw,” wrote District Court Judge Amy Eddy in her ruling. 

In November, the county commission sent a letter to Gov. Gianforte informing him they wanted out of the deal. Two weeks after that they sent a follow-up letter asking specific questions of the state, including if it would be providing its own uniformed officers, if the state would prosecute tribal members accused of crimes or would shift that burden to federal agencies, and whether the state will establish its own detention facility to handle prisoners. So far, none of those questions have been answered. 

For the three county commissioners in Lake County, the silence is upsetting — especially since Gianforte is a fellow Republican. 

“What’s ironic is he said he shouldn’t be the one to deal with this issue, that it’s up to the Legislature,” said Commissioner Bill Barron. “Well, they did deal with it, and then he went and vetoed it.” 

In a statement to MTFP, Gianforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price wrote that the state has “acknowledged receipt” of the letter from November and that it was working on the issue.

“The administration has started its internal process and is committed to holding discussions with stakeholders, including Lake County, to identify a path forward,” she wrote. 

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. The Montana Free Press is a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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