POCATELLO — On the eve of Thanksgiving, the war of words between the Bannock County Commission and a Pocatello city councilwoman-elect was reinvigorated with new public statements from both parties.
Around 1 p.m. Wednesday, the Bannock County Commission released a lengthy press release that included a first-hand account from one of the Commissioners’ Office staff members who witnessed the Nov. 20 brouhaha between Pocatello City Councilwoman-elect Christine Stevens and Bannock County Commissioner Terrel “Ned” Tovey that happened inside the Commissioners’ Office at the Bannock County Courthouse and ultimately ended with Stevens being kicked out of the building by armed courthouse marshals.
The dispute between Stevens and Tovey did not become physical but was heated enough that the courthouse marshals were called to respond.
In response to the County Commission’s press release, Stevens hosted a press conference in the parking lot of The Sand Trap restaurant in Pocatello around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Stevens said she does not want to further the public debate surrounding the Nov. 20 incident and she feels bad a Commissioners’ Office staff member has now been thrust into the ongoing controversy.
Stevens also posted a response to the commissioners’ press release on her election campaign Facebook page.
The Wednesday press release from the Bannock County Commission denounced the unforgiving social media portrayal of Tovey in the week following the confrontational incident and commended the courthouse marshals for how they handled the situation.
Tovey told the Journal on Wednesday evening that nasty Facebook comments directed at Commissioners’ Office staff members are one reason the commissioners issued the press release.
Moreover, Tovey said the County Commission always had the intention of issuing a formal statement on the Nov. 20 incident after reviewing the statements from witnesses and those involved.
Tovey said the staff member’s statement included in the commission’s Wednesday press release is that staff member’s verbatim account that was provided on Nov. 21 to the courthouse marshals investigating the incident. The Idaho State Journal filed a public records request with Bannock County on Monday seeking to obtain the courthouse marshals’ full investigative report regarding the Nov. 20 incident.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bannock County Clerk Jason Dixon said the report has not yet been provided to the Journal because it has not been finalized.
In the County Commission’s press release, the unnamed Commissioners’ Office staff member said Stevens was firm in her tone when she began demeaning and berating staff in the office during the Nov. 20 incident.
Tovey declined to name the staff member quoted in the commission’s press release, citing the social media backlash he said Commissioner’s Office staff members are currently enduring as the reason.
Stevens told the Journal last week that she entered the Commissioners’ Office on Nov. 20 to speak to the County Commission about a report she and biologist and retired Fish and Game fishery manager Mike Larkin submitted to the office in July that identified more than 40 public access roads with access to public lands within the county that have been gated or otherwise closed.
Larkin accompanied Stevens during her Nov. 20 visit to the Commissioners’ Office.
“Our basic concern here and why we went to the commissioners like four months ago was to bring up the issue of public roads that access public lands and how a lot of private landowners are closing off some of these public roads,” Larkin said at Stevens’ press conference. “I worked for the Idaho Fish and Game for 30-plus years and a lot of hunters use these roads to access public lands. We want to see (the roads) maintained in an open, public condition. There should be signs so that the public knows these are public roads. This is a bad deal for the public and we just want it addressed.”
The county commissioners had assigned staff to investigate the matter and informed Stevens they were working on her request, the Commissioners’ Office staff member wrote in Wednesday’s press release.
The staff member said Stevens got upset on her Nov. 20 visit to the Commissioners’ Office because she felt the commissioners should act faster on her concern over the access roads.
“(Stevens), being incredibly firm in tone, began to berate and demean the competency of the commission and their staff, stating repeatedly that she believes the commission has done nothing on (the access road) issue or any other for that matter,” the staff member wrote in the commission’s press release. “(Stevens) said that she has not heard from the commission be it through email, text or phone conversation. I assured her that Commissioner Ernie Moser, commission Chief of Staff Tiffany Olsen and Bannock County Public Works Director Brett Grayson had recently met on the matter. It was incredibly difficult to get a word in edgewise with Ms. Stevens.”
The staff member continued, “As time progressed, it occurred to me that (Stevens) didn’t come in to have a civil conversation. Ms. Stevens did not want to talk. She lobbied complaint after complaint without giving me a chance to speak. Commissioner Tovey stepped out of a meeting when he heard Ms. Stevens raise her voice to me. Commissioner Tovey said, ‘Ms. Stevens, I need you to stop talking to my staff this way,’ although he was unable to complete his sentence because Ms. Stevens interrupted him, raised her voice above his and continued to talk down to us. Commissioner Tovey kept a decent distance from Ms. Stevens and was never 10 to 12 inches away from her. Commissioner Tovey did not wave his finger at her. He does talk with his hands; however, he was not using them to intimidate her.”
The staff member wrote that when Stevens went to pull her cellphone out to record the interaction, Tovey left the room.
At this point, the staff member triggered a silent alarm inside the office to summon four courthouse marshals to escort Stevens from the building, the staff member stated in the commission’s press release.
Stevens and Larkin were asked twice to leave the courthouse by the marshals before doing so, the staff member wrote.
Stevens contends that she never raised her voice during the Nov. 20 fracas and that instead Tovey was screaming at her while he was standing within a foot of her and shaking his finger in her face in a threatening and intimidating manner. Stevens posted her account of the encounter to her election campaign Facebook page following the incident.
The Bannock County Commission disagreed with Stevens’ account in its Wednesday press release.
“As you can see from the very detailed remarks from our staff (member) documenting the interaction, Ms. Stevens’ report of the conversation contains several inconsistencies,” the commissioners stated in their press release. “We find it extremely disheartening Commissioner Tovey is being portrayed in such an unforgiving light. Our staff has expressed their gratitude for Commissioner Tovey’s involvement which led to the removal of Ms. Stevens and Mr. Larkin.”
The commissioners’ statement continued, “The County Commissioners’ Office staff practices proper etiquette in the delivery of public service to each and every citizen; this includes all current elected officials and those elected but yet to be sworn into public service. The citizens of Bannock County should feel comfortable and safe in not only the commissioners’ offices but all county facilities.”
During her Wednesday press conference in response to the commission’s press release Stevens said, “Everybody knows from turning on the news at night that politicians do and say all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and I am not going to dignify misrepresentation with a rebuttal of any sort. I do think it’s sad that the commissioners would put a staff person whose job relies largely on complying with their wishes and desires in the middle of this publicly.”
Stevens continued, “I am just far too experienced to get sucked into any common spat. Have a great Thanksgiving.”