‘Watchdog’ fired last year sues state agency

March 7, 2019

The defiantly independent former executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission filed a lawsuit last week against the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Caryn Miske, executive director of the commission for more than 11 years, alleges in the lawsuit she was wrongfully fired by the department in February 2018.

The suit says Miske has suffered lost wages and fringe benefits and other damages to be proven at trial. It does not describe a specific dollar amount sought by the plaintiff.

Miske’s lawyer, Anne Sherwood, said neither she nor her client would comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation also declined to comment.

Miske’s suit acknowledges she was critical of how the department was handling the threat of destructive aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels. And her complaint acknowledges, too, that she had characterized the Flathead Basin Commission as a “watchdog” of DNRC - a characterization that raised hackles at the agency and was cited in her termination letter.

This week, Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the assertive focus on aquatic invasive species by Miske and the commission, and by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was justified and yielded results.

Jensen was a legislator when he helped craft the legislation creating the Flathead Basin Commission in 1983. He said the commission was intended to be independent of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and was attached to the agency for administrative purposes only.

He said it was clear to him that Miske’s firing was personal.

“This was classic bureaucratic retaliation for [the department’s] failure to act aggressively and properly to protect the Flathead Basin against these aquatic invasive species,” Jensen said.

He said Miske’s independence from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation was a positive characteristic of her work.

“She was good at creating friction and sometimes friction solves problems,” Jensen said.

The friction between Miske and the department was clearly portrayed in a Feb. 26, 2018, termination letter to Miske from Mark Bostrom, an administrator for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Bostrom wrote that the Legislature never intended for the Flathead Basin Commission to provide oversight of the department.

“Your role in promoting the ‘agency watchdog’ concept, rather than grounding the FBC in its statutory duties, is dishonest, subversive and adds to the weight of evidence that you are ill-suited to continue as the FBC’s executive director,” Bostrom wrote.

He named other problems with Miske’s tenure and actions, including attempts to shift the commission from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to the Department of Commerce and struggles by his agency to get basic documentation from Miske for administrative record-keeping.

The state department has disputed allegations by Miske and others that her firing was a form of retribution. Instead, the agency said steep state budget cuts in 2017 led the department to essentially gut funding for the Flathead Basin Commission.

The Flathead Basin Commission’s stated mission has been protecting “the existing high quality of the Flathead Lake aquatic environment; the waters that flow into, out of, or are tributary to the lake; and, the natural resources and environment of the Flathead Basin.”

After her firing from the Flathead Basin Commission, Miske helped form the Watershed Protection Advocates of Northwest Montana.

According to her lawsuit, Miske resides in Missoula County.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.