There goes the judge

Dillon City Judge Crystal Thompson resigns amidst criminal investigation

With a criminal investigation tightening around her, Crystal M. Thompson slipped out of her city court judge’s robe and out the back door of Dillon City Hall last Wednesday.

“I hereby resign my position as city judge effective immediately,” Thompson wrote in a one-sentence, Aug. 30 letter addressed to Mayor Mike Klakken and members of the Dillon City Council.

“I can confirm there is a joint criminal investigation comprising of the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation, Dillon Police Department, County Attorney Jed Fitch, and City Attorney Jim Dolan,” wrote Dillon Police Chief Guiberson in a press release he sent out after Thompson resigned.

“I hope the public will understand that legally, details of current ongoing criminal investigations cannot be discussed to protect all parties involved,” added Guiberson.

Up for reelection in November’s municipal election, Thompson will remain on the ballot to be mailed out next month, with the deadline to withrdraw from it having passed over two weeks prior to her resignation, according to Beaverhead County Election Officer Debbie Scott.

Thompson will appear on the ballot opposite longtime Dillon business owner Paul Pilgrim, who filed by the June deadline to challenge her reelection bid.
Local attorney Kaydan Minor and Danni Straugh signed up after Thompson’s resignation last week and before yesterday’s deadline to receive votes as write-in candidates in the election for the city judge position.

The four-year term of the person who wins the city court judge position in November’s election will not commence until January 2018.

The Dillon City Council at its meeting tonight will address how to keep the city court operating between now and January.

Thompson had won praise from members of the Dillon City Council in recent years for her performance as city court judge.

She was, however, turned back by the council on several occasions in the past two years in her efforts to gain a big pay hike.

Claiming she was working well in excess of the hours she was getting paid for while remaining on-call 24 hours a day, Thompson sought last year to push her city court judge position from 30 hours to 40 hours per week. That increase from three-quarter-time to full-time would have effectively given her a more than 30 percent raise.

The council chose not to grant Thompson’s request last summer, after discussing it and the figures she compiled to justify it for almost an hour.
But Thompson revived that pay spike effort this summer, with a repackaged request to the council to downgrade her city court clerk from full-time to 30 hours per week while upgrading the judge to full-time status.

Thompson claimed the shift would save the city money each year.
But at a special city council meeting last week to address the Fiscal Year 2017–18 budget, it was noted that since Thompson’s per hour compensation rate was nearly double that of her clerk’s, the move would actually have cost the city thousands of additional dollars each year.

Thompson’s sudden departure from the city court judge position last week provided a sort of smoked-glass mirror reflection of her sudden ascension to the bench in a haze of intrigue in October 2014.

She gained the city court judge position after working as a certified paralegal at a law office in Dillon run by Duke Gilbert, who had been fired for insubordination earlier that year by Klakken from the city attorney job Gilbert had been appointed to by Klakken’s predecessor, Marty Malesich. Klakken fired Gilbert after questioning him about a pair of cases that Gilbert ultimately lost and charged the city approximately $60,000 to pursue. The cases began as attempts by the city to gain just over $2000 in payment for the disputed installation of water meters at the homes of George Warner and Martin Brenneke, a pair of former city council members and political rivals of Malesich.

One of six candidates who had been interviewed by the city council on Oct. 15, 2014, Thompson that night gained the only nomination—and then swift endorsement—from the council, which was then still dominated by political allies of Malesich and Gilbert.

Another candidate for city judge, Todd Hazelbaker, noted that night that the council engaged in no public discussion prior to its unanimous vote to seat Thompson.

“I would like to congratulate Crystal and I think she’ll do a great job,” said Hazelbaker, who 16 months later was appointed city director of operations by Klakken.

“But I am curious to know,” wondered Hazelbaker, one of a half-dozen people who had applied for the city judge position after former City Court Judge Shea Erwin submitted a resignation letter in September 2014 following her family’s decision to move out of the area.

“We came in, six of us, gave our presentations — no discussion at all about it, publically. There wasn’t any,” observed Hazelbaker, who, along with Thompson and the four other applicants, had answered six questions during an hour-long special City Council meeting held prior to the regular City Council meeting at which Thompson was named city court judge.

“The comments made that it was a ‘terrible, hard decision’ but we never saw that discussion—here at the table,” commented Hazelbaker to the council, seven of whose eight members were already operating under a cloud of suspicion generated by their violation of Montana open meeting law in February 2014, when they circulated and signed letters written with Gilbert’s help to a pair of district court judges, urging them not to let Klakken call off the Warner and Brenneke water meter cases.

Within six months, five of those seven council members would resign and another would be recalled by voters. Those moves followed a February 2015 ruling by then-Fifth Judicial District Judge Loren Tucker that the signing and sending of the letters to the district judges did indeed constitute a violation of Montana’s open meeting law and a legitimate basis for recall—because the letters were not first presented and discussed at an open meeting.

Despite the departure from city government by so many of the people who had voted to appoint her, Thompson remained at her city court judge post during the past three years, during which she enjoyed the praise and support of many in city government.
Until last Wednesday.

The Dillon Tribune will keep tracking the legal situation surrounding Thompson and the election to seat a new city court judge to replace her.
Keep checking the weekly print edition of the Tribune and the paper’s website at www.dillontribune.com for updates.