More than 2,000 people have now signed on to an online petition calling for East Helena’s mayor to be recalled over the firing of a longtime police officer.
On June 24, Delane Erickson posted on Facebook, saying he was no longer with the department. Later that day, a petition appeared on the website Change.org, calling for the recall of Mayor James Schell over what it called Erickson’s “unjust termination.”
Many of the people who signed the petition also submitted comments, praising Erickson for his service and the impact he has had on residents’ lives.
“If you want to talk about protect and serve, he exemplifies ‘serve,’” said Patrick Foley, who posted the Change.org petition.
Erickson told MTN Monday he was surprised and gratified by the show of support.
“To be truthful, I was astonished,” he said.
Erickson said he was fired June 24, after an investigation that started when he was written up over several issues related to recent calls. He said some of the things administrators pointed to were not filling out a report at the correct time, failing to issue a no-contact order to the suspect in a partner-family member assault and not bringing a body camera when responding to an altercation.
Erickson does not deny these issues took place. He said he did not issue the no-contact order because he assumed an officer from another agency would do it, and that he forgot to bring the body camera because he was rushing to respond.
“I’m not going to lie; I made some mistakes,” he said.
Erickson would not comment on whether he believed he was unfairly targeted, but Foley said he didn’t believe Erickson had been treated fairly. He said the petition shows the community is behind Erickson.
“We’ve definitely made a statement, saying this is not the right thing to do,” Foley said.
This online petition is not enough to lead to an official recall. State law says that, in order to formally ask for a recall, people must submit a proposed petition form to county elections officials. That form must be approved before petitioners can start collecting signatures.
Audrey McCue, Lewis and Clark County’s elections supervisor, said they have not yet received any formal requests for a recall petition.
If an official recall petition for Schell does begin circulating, it will have to be signed by at least 20 percent of the registered voters living in the city of East Helena – about 235 people. Many of the signers of the online petition would not be eligible, because they live outside the city limits.
State law also says a recall can only be brought for one of five specific reasons: physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of the oath of office, official misconduct, or conviction of a felony offense.
Foley said some East Helena residents are currently looking at the possibility of filing a formal recall, including considering whether there would be evidence to justify it on one of those grounds.
Erickson said he is currently planning legal action over his firing. When asked whether he believes Schell should be recalled, he said he would let the process take its course.
“I want to see a change take place for the better,” he said. “That may not necessarily mean him getting recalled, but if that’s the way it goes, it goes, and that wouldn’t bother me one bit.”
On Monday, Mayor Schell released a statement on this matter to MTN. That full statement is below:
“Regarding this particular employee matter, I have no comment as it is a personnel issue and I am responsible to protect the individual privacy rights of current and former employees.
As the Mayor of East Helena, I must state that I am responsible under state law for the supervision of the East Helena Police Department. It is my duty, under the law, to ensure our Police Department and its Officers are not only following internal policies and directives, but that they are also adhering to established Montana Law when conducting their investigations and interacting with the public. I am committed to protecting the rights of our residents and the victims of crime in this community.
That being said, I believe we have an outstanding Police Department which serves our small community well. I respect our Officers and believe they work hard every day to protect the citizens of our City. They continue to work tirelessly ensuring the law is enforced equitably and remain focused on making East Helena a safe place to live and work.
Finally, I am committed to the protection of individual privacy rights of all individuals, including our current and former employees. The City of East Helena, as always, will provide available public information pertaining to this matter through written public records requests that may be directed to the City.”
Story by Jonathon Ambarian, MTN News