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Behind the hate ball

Ravalli County employee takes heat for hostile e-mail

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A Ravalli County employee may face disciplinary action for sending a vitriolic e-mail to a western Montana environmental activist, referring to the activist as “an imbecile” and a “juvenile delinquent,” among other things.

Kevin Schreier, Ravalli County’s grants administrator, and a Republican candidate for county commissioner for the county’s northern district, sent the e-mail on July 30. The activist, concerned about personal safety, asked not to be identified, but did acknowledge receiving the e-mail from Schreier several days after a public meeting on a national forest project that Schreier is spearheading on behalf of Ravalli County.

The Independent received a copy of the e-mail from Jim Olsen, past president of the grassroots conservation group, Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), and the group’s current spokesman. In part it reads: “Intellectually you are an imbecile, but hey thats [sic] just my opinion. I have spent years of study and formalized research which has provided me with the tools to reveal exactly the flaws in your work, the out of context generalized bites of disconnected pieces to justify your ideology, no basis in fact, no credibility, just more of the same dribble you and the anarchists, ELF, Earth First, and other juvenile delinquents espouse as fact. You were too lazy to pursue anything worthwhile to lead to a credible existance [sic]. . .” ELF refers to the Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy group known for vandalizing or destroying projects that its members believe are environmentally harmful.

When asked whether he did, indeed, send the e-mail, Schreier replied, “Well [the activist] didn’t make it up. We had an ongoing dialogue before or after that e-mail. You can take it out of context if you wish to.” Schreier says the correspondence was personal, had no connection to his job as grants administrator, and was written out of a sense of “frustration.” County commissioners took the e-mail seriously enough that they scheduled a meeting to be held this week with Schreier, county attorney George Corn, civil attorney Jim Mickelson and human resource director Skip Rosenthal. Rosenthal has already apologized to the recipient of the e-mail on behalf of Ravalli County. County Commissioner Jack Atthowe, whose seat Schreier will seek next year, says he was concerned about the e-mail and is “definitely taking it seriously. We’re in the process of holding some meetings to discuss this fully and to the fullest extent. It’s a meeting of the minds to see what we’re going to do.”

Atthowe says the county commissioners received two letters condemning Schreier’s e-mail, one from the activist and another from FOB. Commissioner Alan Thompson doubts whether attorneys will be present. “There might be an attorney, and there might not be,” says Thompson. “Certainly Mr. Rosenthal will be there.”

A personnel meeting of this kind is new to the board of county commissioners. Despite years of low morale among county staffers, ongoing conflicts over land use policies between the public and the county, and unclear direction to county employees and departmental heads, county commissioners have heard little in the way of complaint against employees. Thompson says he and his colleagues are in unfamiliar territory with a personnel matter of this type. “I’ve already talked to Kevin [Schreier] about it,” he says. “But obviously we need a little more formal setting.“ Whether the meeting is open or closed to the public is Schreier’s decision under state law, which guarantees privacy to public officials if the official’s right to privacy exceeds the public’s right to know.

This is not the first time Schreier has gone head-to-head with environmental activists. Last June Schreier told the Independent that unnamed Missoula attorneys were offering to pay welfare recipients to attend a rally in Hamilton that FOB had organized to protest the salvage logging sale proposed by the Bitterroot National Forest. That rumor could not be verified by the Independent and was later dismissed by FOB as untrue.

For some environmental activists, there’s a straight line that leads from verbal harassment to physical violence. In Kalispell, KGEZ-AM radio talk show host John Stokes has used his morning show “The Edge” to verbally bash environmentalists, calling them “green Nazis” and identifying them as the source of the Flathead Valley’s economic woes. Both KGEZ-AM and Stokes’s critics have been targeted by vandals. One outspoken Stokes critic woke up one morning to find trash and nails thrown on her lawn.

In the Bitterroot, at least one environmentalist has received death threats for his opposition to timber sales. Someone fired shots at another activist’s house, leaving bullet holes in a fence. The home of yet another activist was burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. Still another activist was thrown off his job when his employer learned of his involvement with environmental politics. At a public meeting on a grizzly reintroduction plan in Salmon, Idaho, one pro-grizzly speaker was booed and jeered while someone from the audience yelled, “get a rope.” Then, of course, there’s the suspicious death earlier this year of Flathead Valley activist Tary Mocabee.

Not all environmentalists fear that angry words lead directly to violent deeds. Olsen, once president and spokesman for FOB, the Bitterroot’s only active environmental group, and a former candidate for public office (he ran unsuccessfully for a House seat last fall), knows that threats and criticism are an unfortunate part of the job. Blaming hostile criticism for violent acts is akin to blaming television for societal violence, he says. Still, he admits that verbal harassment “lowers the barrier for people to do violence.” While noting that Schreier didn’t threaten to harm anyone in his e-mail, Olsen says that vitriolic language can inspire other angrier and more frustrated people to take action, adding, “He wasn’t advocating violence, but it just stirs up anger. The likely scenario is that some plot is hatched in a bar.”

Olsen is less concerned about the tenor of the e-mail than he is with the idea that it was sent out by a county employee running for public office. “I’ve been advocating civil dialogue for years and this isn’t it,” says Olsen. “People running for office should have a civil dialogue with people they disagree with. This kind of dialogue isn’t going to help anybody, public or private.”

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