WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - Tension filled the room Tuesday night as Town Council held a special work session in West Yellowstone. One of the main reasons for the session was discussing emergency response and inter-agency cooperation. Multiple outside agencies joined in with the council to discuss current issues with the department like training, hiring, and current staffing.
The scrutiny surrounding this department has been the topic of discussion for months. According to court documents, in December 2013, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin requested an investigation through the Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation. The request was for assistance in looking into possible criminal allegations regarding the West Yellowstone Police Department, and in particular Chief Gordon Berger. Court documents say the request originated with Town Manager Becky Guay.
That investigation has since been completed, but has not been released to the public. In May, the town of West Yellowstone petitioned to get investigation details, saying they needed the information to decide if administrative action should be taken against Chief Berger. Late last week District Court judge Mike Salvagni ordered the release of the confidential criminal justice information. The order states the town's attorney can review the file, but cannot make further copies of the file or share the information without further order of the Court.
The meeting on Tuesday was an effort to get the department to move forward. Along with the lingering criminal investigation, there is also concern about public safety. The department is currently short staffed with just three sworn officers total, including Chief Berger.
They discussed three main bullet points about hiring, staffing, and training protocols. We found one person was missing from this discussion.
"I can't believe the Chief of Police is not here all you had to do, all he had to do was ask, Brian, can you please have someone cover the town while I attend this meeting...done," said Gootkin.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said the West Yellowstone PD Chief Gordon Berger should have been there Tuesday night to talk about the problems with his department.
Town Manager Becky Guay replied at one point in the discussion, saying Chief Berger was on duty.
"He is out patrolling the town to keep the public safe, so we felt it was more important to have coverage in the town for public safety reasons since we seem to have issues with the number of patrol folks that we have at any given time," said Guay.
That comment prompted a fiery response from Hebgen Basin Fire Chief Scott Waldron.
"I think that is just more smoke and mirrors, and he could respond from here if there was a call," said Waldron.
Around a dozen citizens also came to the meeting and voiced concerns. One resident stood up and said he has lived in West Yellowstone for 47 years, and has never seen it like this.
"What I'm concerned about is the citizens of this town and I think we need the Sheriff's department the park service everybody here working together," said a West Yellowstone resident.
Sheriff Gootkin, along with other outside agencies agree that as West Yellowstone prepares for their busy season, it is vital that the police department increases their staff.
"There could be upwards of 20,000 people coming through this town at any one time and you only have one officer that may be available at that, time that's not a safe situation," said Gootkin.
Town Manager Becky Guay says they interviewed candidates just last week to fill positions for more police officers.
"We do have several well qualified candidates. Number two, they will participate in a field training program, again like I said Sergeant Frank is working on developing that protocol, and we are working on it as we speak," said Guay.
Tuesday nights meeting ended with a few things up in the air. City leaders and emergency officials are hoping to schedule another work session soon to get the process going to get the department back on their feet.