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FJBC hires new secretary, missing monies investigation continues

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By Karen Peterson              Valley Journal

ST. IGNATIUS – The Flathead Joint Board of Control hired Chantelle Begay as their new secretary, and she was busy passing out papers, recording notes and talking to the public during the regular meeting on Tuesday.

Begay’s additional duties include answering phones, filing paperwork, and developing the board’s website, among other things. An outside independent firm now does the accounting. She hopes to upgrade technology for the board including the addition of a recorded conference-calling program for meetings. 

The board changed the position title from executive manager to secretary and redefined the role without accounting duties. Former executive manager Johanna Clark was placed on unpaid leave May 5. The position was terminated May 24. An official reason for the termination wasn’t given but the issue coincided with an independent audit for alleged “unauthorized credit card use” for three years with FJBC funds resulting in a possible loss of around $200,000.

An outside accounting firm was hired to investigate the matter to fulfill the board’s insurance company requirement to provide a proof of claim for the exact amount of missing funds. The deadline for the audit was extended to October 30, and once it’s finished, the board will rely on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to gather the information along with other evidence and turn it over to the Offices of the United States Attorneys. 

“The board will not be filing criminal charges,” Chairman Ray Swenson said. If charges are filed, it will be up to a grand jury. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will convene a grand jury, and it’s up to the jury whether to indict anyone. 

Flathead Indian Irrigation Project Manager Pete Plant was at the meeting to talk about the end of the irrigation season and low water levels in the reservoirs. He said the pumps have been working “pretty much non-stop” since July with few shut downs. 

Irrigators using pumped water are down to stock water after regular irrigation water was shut off for the season. The pumps will probably be completely shut off the second week in October. 

“We will go as long as we can, provided we are not doing maintenance work,” he said.

Plant has worked on increasing the FIIP staff to bring the numbers up to about 43 people in anticipation of receiving more revenue from the $3 increase per irrigable acre from operation and maintenance fees irrigators will pay in the 2018 season.

Hydrologist Kurt Hafferman was hired earlier this year by the board to work on the water rights adjudication process before the issue goes to Water Court. He was at the meeting to present an update on the project. He said he organized the 304 issue remarks for the board’s water rights claims, and he wants to get them resolved to represent an accurate number of irrigated acres within the project to present to the court. 

“The next thing we will do is to come to you with amended claims,” he said to the board. 

Mission and Jocko District board members held a special meeting after the regular FJBC meeting. They talked about the cost of litigation compared to paying a bill for legal services acquired before the two districts dissolved for a short time in 2013. The initial bill was for $195,000. A $90,000 remaining balance was reduced to $75,000, but board members stated that they believe the bill was excessive and are debating whether to pay it or go to court in March. 

Swenson said the districts don’t have the funds to pay the bill. It was suggested that the two districts borrow money from the joint board. Board members talked about the possibility that they could dispute the bill in court and end up paying even more if they lose the case. 

“This is a very defensible case,” Swenson said. “But how do we pay to get it done?” 

The districts will continue the discussion and take action during a future meeting. Regular FJBC meetings are on the second Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. 

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