Fiasco with ex-Hill County attorney leads to bill empowering commissioners

Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson during her Aug. 7 contempt hearing. (The Havre Herald)

(The Havre Herald) Hill County’s difficulties in relieving then-County Attorney Jessica Cole- Hodgkinson of her duties has spurred the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) to seek changes in state law.

A bill submitted by Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, would allow commissioners to remove a locally appointed official.

The association consists of representatives from Montana’s 56 counties and lobbies on their behalf in Helena.

Cole-Hodgkinson was appointed county attorney by the three Hill County commissioners after Gina Dahl resigned in November 2016, in the middle of her four-year elected term, to take a job in Billings.

But not long after Cole-Hodgkinson was appointed, the commissioners started receiving complaints about how she was missing appointments and failing to keep up with the duties of her job.

Felony charges against defendants were dropped because she failed to appear in court, people with civil matters with the county complained she was never available, and eventually she faced contempt of court charges from two judges for failing to show up for court proceedings. She was found guilty by Hill County Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger of three counts of contempt of court.

But under state law, once the commissioners appointed her, they could not fire her — she was to serve until the end of Dahl’s original term.

Eventually, commissioners agreed to pay Cole-Hodgkinson the rest of her salary and benefits, about $50,000, for the remaining six months of Dahl’s term, in return  for her resignation.

Under MACo’s proposal, when filling a vacancy of an elected official, commissioners could name someone to serve “at the pleasure of the commissioners.”

Had this bill been in effect, commissioners could have simply voted to remove Cole-Hodgkinson from office. They then could have appointed another county attorney.

Commissioners would still not be able to remove elected officials who had been elected — only voters could do that. Cole-Hodgkinson had been appointed, though.

Bachmeier said he was inundated with messages during the Cole-Hodgkinson controversy from people irate that state law barred commissioners from doing anything about the problem.

He said passing a law that would remedy the situation was a priority this legislative session.

On Monday, a MACo spokesperson told the House Administration Committee that similar incidents have taken place in other counties.

While the committee heard testimony on Bachmeier’s proposal, it took no action.

The proposal must eventually be approved by the House, then the Senate State Administration Committee and the full Senate.