Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The ($1.3 million) house that Ron Tussing built -- Part III

Well, the chickens all came home to roost on Ron Tussing today, and it was pillage indeed.

Billings taxpayers will have to pick up $1.3 million in damages awarded to Steve Feuerstein by a Billings jury. As noted in our last post, Montana juries in general and Yellowstone County juries in particular tend to be pretty conservative in awarding damages of this sort, so unless we learn something else to the contrary, the evidence must have been pretty damning.

Merit was found in every single one of the claims that Feuerstein made against the Billings Police Department:

During the trial, Feuerstein argued that supervisors began a series of retaliatory acts against him after he reported that fellow K-9 Officers Brian Korell and Dave Punt had given a civilian dog handler methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Instead of investigating his complaint, Feuerstein, he was ostracized, unfairly disciplined, and denied promotions and special duty assignments.

Feuerstein said some officers refused to provide him backup on calls, and supervisors failed to act on his complaints.

In short, we in Billings are still having to live with the fallout of the juvenile antics of the dispute between then Chief of Police Ron Tussing and then City Administrator Kristoff Bauer. Back when he took his payoff and resigned, seemingly ages ago, Tussing said that "it's probably time for the community to put it behind us."

Would that we could -- first Tussing's run for mayor in violation of the spirit of the agreement he signed, and now a $1.3 million bill for the city of Billings to pay, thanks to his poor ability to deal with personnel.

And this may just be the tip of the iceberg -- who knows what other lawsuits will be sparked now that other employees of that apparently mismanaged department have seen what a jury of their peers thinks about such matters? We may be digging yet deeper into our pockets to pay damages to wronged employees.

The size of the award is staggering -- the word on the street was that the "unspecified damages" sought would be in the $200,000 - $300,000 range, which would have been bad enough. Seeing the size of this award, in retrospect, the idea niggles at the back of the head that Tussing must have known how weak his own case for wrongful termination suit was. Otherwise he wouldn't have taken his own $200,000 payoff from the city when he did.

The Billings Gazette, predictably, has for the most part played down any responsibility that Tussing has for this blow to our city's finances and our city's reputation. Tussing was captain of the ship when this particular iceberg was hit -- but it doesn't seem that the Gazette feels he should go down with it. In the article announcing the verdict, he is only listed as having been one of the witnesses.

The city of Billings was, of course, the big loser in this case -- not only in dollars but in the uncertainties that we as residents of the city have to face when a jury of Billings residents determines that their own police department was guilty of wrongly retaliating against a fellow officer -- including by not providing him with proper backup, something that threatens the safety of the honest citizen no less than it did the safety of Feuerstein himself. And when a jury has determined that those in charge didn't handle the situation properly and professionally once they learned about it, what are we to think about how our police department handles other internal affairs?

All in all, the BPD has always seemed to do an outstanding job. We have a remarkably safe city, and our police officers keep a low-profile and don't hassle honest citizens going about their business. There are many cities that can't say the same. We hope that those in charge of the BPD right now will move swiftly to repair any damage done to that sense of safety and confidence that most of us felt before all of this happened

Feuerstein was the winner, we suppose -- his attorney will take a big cut of those taxpayer dollars first, of course. But there is the inescapable sense that he wasn't perhaps a particularly worthy plaintiff. Meaning, that competent management and administration would have handled and defused this situation before it ever reached this point. After seeing Tussing and Bauer escalate their own war of words, and after seeing the dirty late-hit campaign that Tussing ran against his opponent for mayor, it shouldn't be surprising that Tussing had more of a talent for escalating this kind of situation than for defusing it.

The only silver lining is that this should, by all rights, put the permanent brakes on any future political ambitions that Mayor Tussing has.

But with the Billings Gazette running interference for him -- now as during the time of his dispute with Bauer, all bets are off on that, the one piece of justice that does deserve to be served in this case.


Craig said...

Why did this not surprise me in the least?

Montana Headlines said...

Because it's the house that Ron Tussing built.