Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said Friday he killed five cottonwood trees in a county-managed park adjacent to his property last year — not to enhance the view from his own home, but because he simply doesn’t like that species of tree.
In the change-of-plea hearing at Flathead District Court, Mitchell pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of criminal mischief for his role in the destruction of the trees at Lake Park addition on Whitefish Lake.
Mitchell, 64, of Whitefish, entered his plea before Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Robert Olson. Mitchell originally pleaded not guilty to felony criminal mischief.
Olson, satisfied with the plea agreement, sentenced Mitchell to a six-month suspended sentence. Mitchell was also ordered to abide by all laws, pay restitution of $16,000 to the county and a $75 fine.
“I don’t know if this was a political prosecution, but politics are involved,” Olson said as he sentenced Mitchell. “There are a number of people that feel you breached this trust with them. You are expected to do the right thing and you are held to a higher standard.
“I think this was an arrogant decision,” Olson said of Mitchell’s actions.
Mitchell said during the hearing that he had already paid the restitution.
Olson told Mitchell that if he violates any terms of the agreement, his sentence could be revoked and he could serve time in the county jail.
The hearing lasted about an hour with both sides having a chance to speak.
Flathead County Parks Director Jed Fisher explained the significance of Lake Park addition, his role as director, his relationship with Mitchell, the sequence of events and how the park board came to approve the plea agreement.
“The Lake Park addition is what we call a pocket park. It’s about 1 acre in size, but it’s important for the water access it provides,” Fisher said.
In early 2017, Fisher said a member of the park staff and a resident who lives near the park reported that five cottonwood trees weren’t doing well.
“In April, I had a park employee check the trees and he reported that they were budding and that they would make it,” Fisher said. “Then in early June, we found that the trees were not doing well.
“I spoke to Phil about it and told him that I believed that the neighbor who had first informed us the trees weren’t doing well had damaged them.”
Later that night, Fisher said Mitchell called him and wanted to talk the next day.
“The next morning, Phil told me I had the wrong thought process about what happened to the trees and that he had damaged them,” Fisher said.
Daniel Guzynski, assistant attorney general and special deputy Flathead County attorney, said both he and the Parks Department were concerned that if the case went before a jury, Mitchell could have been found guilty of a misdemeanor, which would have resulted in a much smaller penalty for restitution, $1,500.
Fisher explained that he sought three bids to remove the dead trees, grind the stumps and plant new trees. They ranged from $12,300 to $23,800.
“We could have lost the ability to make the park whole again, which is what the park board most wanted to do,” Guzynski said.
Mitchell released a statement through his attorney Sean Frampton on Friday after the hearing.
“I’m relieved that this political prosecution is over and we can all get back to the important matters of managing our budget, growing the economy and ensuring the safety of our children,” Mitchell said.
“At the time that this occurred, I acknowledged that I had broken certain park rules and took full accountability; something few public officials do these days. I did so because my faith requires it and the people of Flathead County deserved it. But the escalation of charges to felony status was never supported by the facts and, in my opinion, was sought by those with whom I disagreed on other matters while in my service as a county commissioner.”
Mitchell also said he plans on finishing his current term as commissioner and addressed Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, who made comments that he was embarrassed by the plea deal.
“Sheriff Curry’s comment that he was embarrassed by this plea deal is laughable. He should be embarrassed that his department recommended felony charges without investigating whether the trees were already dead.”
Before Mitchell pleaded not guilty last year, he had publicly apologized in letters for girdling five trees and using Roundup on another.
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.