Left the premise: Montana Board of Livestock chief resigns

Carrie Stadheim

Budget woes, lawsuits, top echelon staff changes. Is it just another day in a state office, or a sign of problems that need fixing?

The Montana Board of Livestock announced Sept. 21 that their chief executive, Christian Mackay, had resigned after eight years in that position. The seven member, governor-appointed board said in an official statement that they accepted Mackay’s resignation and that he left to “pursue other interests.”

John Grainger Brand Enforcement Division Administrator, resigned the same day.

Montana State Veterinarian Dr. Marty Zaluski, who had served under Mackay, was asked by the board to fill in as the temporary executive officer. He will serve until the end of the year or until a new executive is hired, whichever comes first, he said.

“I had never, in the 17 years I worked with the department of livestock, seen them pull computers and phones and go through people’s home like they did Garry Wheelock. Other plants were given a warning or just told to stop doing something.” Susan Ostler, served as northwestern supervisor for Montana meat inspection program when Wheelock lost his license

Zaluski said the search for a new executive will likely be broad and that it is too early to say whether he will seek to hold the position permanently.

Because his job as state veterinarian and the position of chief executive are both full time jobs, he doesn’t believe one person could hold both positions without some reassignments of duties.

The assistant brand administrator will assume the brand program duties in the short term, said Zaluski.

MBOL member Brett DeBruycker, Dutton, chose not to comment on the past or current staff or budget issues except to say that he greatly appreciated Zaluski stepping up to fill the vacancy. “He’s very competent,” DeBruycker said. “We are very fortunate to have him help us like this.”

Recent appointments to the MBOL include Lila Taylor of Busby, appointed in May and Nina Baucus, appointed in March. John Lefehldt of Lavina, has served since 2013 and is the current president. Vice President John Scully of Ennis, Ed Waldner of Chester, Brett DeBruycker of Dutton, round out the board. Jeffrey Lewis of Corvallis resigned last month and his position has not been filled.

On Sept. 10, 2015, Garry Wheelock, owner of Montana City Meats filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Livestock, former agency executive officer Christian Mackay and meat inspection bureau chief Gary Hamel. Wheelock’s claims include violations of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, intentional interference with his business, trespassing and defamatory statements, according to the AP.

While the two current livestock board members who were reached via telephone chose not to comment on the topic, former board member Jeffrey Lewis of Corvallis, who had represented the dairy industry said that there had been budget challenges within the department for sometime.

Lewis, who said he resigned in early September because he had gotten out of the dairy business, said there had been a lot of pressure on staff to get things done, and that the board had worked together to follow protocol in dealing with any issues that arose. “You are used to working on your ranch and you just deal with things. With the government there is a process and the board was careful to try and follow the process.” The two relatively new board members may have “escalated the pressure” to take care of some issues, he said.

A big reason the budget had been tight for several years was the fact that the former governor didn’t support any fee increases, he said.

Lewis didn’t believe that Mackay’s resignation came as the result of the Montana City Meats lawsuit filed earlier that month but he resigned before the September board meeting so he was not privy to those discussions.

According to news reports, Garry Wheelock lost his custom exempt license and was arrested in 2013 after MBOL meat inspectors found he had sold mislabeled meat.

Wheelock says he has jumped through the hoops to get his processing license back but has met a brick wall with the department.

Gary Hamel, head of the meat inspection department chose not to comment due to the ongoing nature of the lawsuit.

Operating as Montana City Meats, Wheelock has had the necessary county license to sell state or federally inspected meat out of his mobile freezer truck for several years.

In 2011 he sought a custom exempt license to begin processing customers’ animals. The custom exempt license allows him to slaughter and process domestic animals for local ranchers. But because of his county license, he still continued to legally sell meat processed at state or federally inspected plants – Forcella Meats, Western Meat Block and Ranchland – at farmers markets and elsewhere .

In a 2013 story in the Helena Independent Record, Christian Mackay said Montana City Meats posed no health threat, that no products were being recalled, and that his department was working with Montana City Meats to “get it processing again quickly.”

But more than two years have passed and, despite Wheelock filing the necessary paperwork, his license has not been reinstated.

Susan Ostler, who served as the northwestern supervisor for the Montana meat inspection program when Wheelock lost his license said she had never seen violations or written Wheelock up for anything.

“I had never, in the 17 years I worked with the department of livestock, seen them pull computers and phones and go through people’s homes like they did to Garry Wheelock,” she said. “Other plants were given a warning or just told to stop doing something.”

News reports tell that e-coli was found in meat at a Montana plant by MBOL inspectors. No recall occurred and the plant’s license was not suspended. The department did not name the plant.

Hamel said discovery of the potentially dangerous bacteria is a “common occurrence” in meat plants, but that it is the first positive sample since “about 1989” in a Montana plant.

The department said cleaning equipment had become clogged, causing the bacteria to remain on cow carcasses.

“Honestly it is not really newsworthy,” Hamel said, adding that his inspectors enhanced testing following the incedent, denatured and destroyed the carcass and continue to analyze samples to be sure products coming out of that plant are safe.

Ostler, who resigned after filing a harassment suit against the Department of Livestock, Christian Mackay and Gary Hamel, said she felt “forced out” of the department and believes the same thing happened to others.

Rancher Terry Haughian from Kinsey said a brand inspection staff member who had served in the Miles City auction barn, was furloughed recently, causing hardship for local ranchers.

“It affects our local communities when they are short on inspectors and our personnel that we need. They said they couldn’t afford those employees but that turned out to be wrong. Eastern Montana was kind of neglected,” he said.

A year ago Tri-State Livestock News reported that the livestock board had started the ball rolling to raise the brand inspection fee from $.75 to a dollar. Livestock groups across the state responded with lukewarm support at best. The fee had just jumped from $.50 to $.75 the year prior, and brand recording fees had doubled, from $100 to $200, also in 2013.

The executive director of the Montana Farm Bureau, John Youngberg, said at that time that the department was in “financial straits.” He also cited bookkeeping problems. “They have had a couple situations brought forth in an audit by the state that they have to pay some money back on that had not set aside. They did not have any cash available, and have exceeded their spending authority, resulting in them having to make some tough decisions to get through the remainder of the year,” said Youngberg in the September, 2014 story.

A 2014 official financial-compliance audit report on the board’s website lists at least five areas where the accounting practices needed adjustment.

Increased need for brucellosis testing in the state lab was one big reason for a budget shortfall, said one rancher in Tri-State Livestock News’ story last year.

This spring Tri-State Livestock News reported that the Montana Department of Livestock had indeed received funding from the legislature to help finance the brucellosis testing in the diagnostic lab.

In that April, 2015 story, Mackay said that a number of state ag groups had lobbied alongside the department for general fund moneys to help support the lab.

“We told them, ‘Look, 41 percent of tests we do are for zoonotic diseases that have a public component to them. So the general public of Montana should be responsible for 41 percent of the budget,’” said Mackay.

The legislators appropriated $890,000 for two years to help fund the lab.

Zaluski is optimistic about the future of the department. “I wouldn’t have agreed to take this post if I didn’t think I could make a positive difference.”

Every organization can stand improvement, he said, and he hopes to focus on a few particular areas, one being the budget. He also hopes to address some internal issues that will help the department run more smoothly, such as making sure vacancies are filled, ensuring salaries are fair from employee to employee, and as a whole. “Department of Livestock employees are well below the market rate for some positions,” he said.

He also hopes to strengthen communication channels between the board and employees.

Montana’s per-capita assessment on livestock is not being fully funded, he believes, and he’d like to address the issue. “When some producers don’t support the department through per-capita fees, all our operations are financially challenged,” he said.

In addition to the per-capita assessments, the department is funded by fees such as brand inspection fees, federal funding for the brucellosis testing program and the meat inspection program, and state general fund money, also for meat inspection and brucellosis testing, said Zaluski.

Hamel said he does not expect any more big changes in department staff positions in the near future.

Christian Mackay could not be reached for comment.