Commissioner set to plead guilty to killing trees

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Phil Mitchell is seen in this Pilot file photo during the time he served on Whitefish City Council.

A court hearing for a Flathead County commissioner accused of killing six cottonwood trees in a county-owned public park will be heard in Flathead County next week.

According to a Toole County representative, the change-of-plea hearing for Phil Mitchell, 64, that was scheduled for Thursday in Shelby was rescheduled for Friday, May 11 in Flathead District Court.

According to court documents, Mitchell will plead guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief before Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Robert Olson of Shelby. Mitchell originally pleaded not guilty to felony criminal mischief.

According to the plea agreement, the state is recommending that Mitchell receive a six-month suspended sentence with the condition that he pay a fine as well as restitution of $16,000 to the Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department.

Before Mitchell pleaded not guilty last year, he had publicly apologized in letters for girdling five trees and using Roundup, a potent grass and weed killer, on another at the county park near Mitchell’s home on Whitefish Lake.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said he was not pleased by the proposed plea deal.

“I thought the state would hold him more accountable for his actions,” Curry told the Inter Lake. “The public expects transparency and resolutions in this case may deter the public trust in their officials.”

Curry said he understands that prosecutorial decisions fall outside the realm of what his office does.

“People need to be held accountable. For the first time in my 34-year career, I’m embarrassed to be part of the criminal justice system,” Curry said.

According to court documents, the dead or dying trees were discovered in July 2017 by a Flathead County Parks and Recreation employee in Lake Park Addition. The park is in a location adjacent to a residence owned by Mitchell. Court documents state that Mitchell may be trying to sell that property.

An arborist retained by Flathead County Sheriff’s Office evaluated the trees and assessed the cost to remove and replace the trees at around $30,000.

The public park, established in 1913, features mature trees, benches and a floating dock. The park is accessible by West Lakeshore Drive and a 60-foot-wide county easement that runs to the lakeshore — but also along Mitchell’s lot line.

Mitchell’s case was first assigned to Flathead District Judge Heidi Ulbricht, but Mitchell’s attorneys asked for a substitute judge. Lake County District Court Judge James A. Manley was then selected to oversee Mitchell’s trial, but Manley removed himself from the case. The case was then given to Olson, who covers Glacier, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties. Olson was planning to travel to Flathead District Court for the trial prior to Mitchell’s request for a plea change.

A call to Olson’s office to clarify why the change-of-plea hearing was rescheduled was not returned by press time.

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