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'I don't dismiss things:' Gallatin County Attorney says he will continue suit against Rocking R Bar, BOH votes in favor

Posted at 11:15 AM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 13:15:42-05

BOZEMAN — The Gallatin County Attorney says he will continue pursuing the case of a Downtown Bozeman bar that is accused of violating the local emergency health rule for closing time, despite the Montana Attorney General telling him to dismiss it.

At the beginning of the Wednesday morning meeting, Matt Kelley said that this entire COVID-19 situation is like putting together a large puzzle, but also at the beginning, the Board of Health voted, excluding one nay vote, to continue the suit against the Rocking R Bar.

“I have not accommodated the attorney general,” says Marty Lambert, Gallatin County Attorney. “It was probably impossible to do that anyway.”

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert opened Wednesday morning’s virtual meeting with the board of health, nearly one week after Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen sent Lambert a message.

“I was to dismiss the case of Gallatin City-County Board of Health and Health Officer Matt Kelley versus the Rocking R Bar,” Lambert says. “I was supposed to dismiss that case by noon of the following day, January 15, 2021. I don’t dismiss things, first of all without consulting with my clients.”

Four people spoke in defense of Rocking R Bar owner Mike Hope in public comment, including fellow Bozeman business owners Kyle Voigtlander and Cheryl Tusken.

“I highly encourage you guys to dismiss this case. It’s hurt Mike Hope’s business,” Voigtlander said over the phone during the meeting. “It’s hurt other businesses. You guys are unelected officials making this decision to go against the people and as the community, we support Mike Hope and support Austin Knudsen.”

“I think you guys owe small businesses and Rocking R Bar an apology for singling them out and ruining their businesses,” Tusken said. “They are on the verge of ruin.”

Similar words were stated by Knudsen in the press release last week, which, in part, read: “The ten o’clock closure rule defies common sense. This type of government overreach is devastating to Montana workers and small businesses.”

“He said that businesses are being held hostage by activities from, in this case obviously, he’s referring to you and he’s referring to Matt,” Lambert says. “He’s referring to the rule that [the Board of Health] enacted. He’s referring to the order that Matt put into place and, by golly, we’re just not going to do that in Montana.”

Lambert told the board that one factor stands above others in his request to continue the suit: it’s a civil case, not state.

“This is a civil case,” Lambert says. “Gallatin City-County Board of Health and Health Officer Matt Kelley versus Rocking R Bar is a civil case. Every time I file a felony criminal case, it’s in the name of the people of the State of Montana and it is that entity that Austin Knudsen is now serving as the attorney general for the state of Montana. That’s the party. The parties here are you, Matt Kelley and the Rocking R Bar and that is just different in so many aspects.”

In the end, the board voted seven to one in favor of following through with the suit.

Lambert says the temporary injunction on the bar is still set until March 1.

At that time or before, he adds a range of options could happen, such as the two parties agree to resolve the issue or the injunction could be extended.

“There are many things at play here but the fact that this is a civil case puts this on an entirely different footing,” Lambert says.