In the 10 years that he worked for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Jeff Havens was recognized for his food safety expertise and was elected president of the Montana Environmental Health Association.
But his concern that the 2021 Montana Food Choice Act (MLFCA) allows the production and sale of commercial high-risk homemade foods without any food safety provisions that would normally be applied under retail food and cottage food regulations, went ignored by his department and the Montana Legislature.
Instead, when Havens continued to raise the danger of the Food Choice Act, pushback came from the powerful state senator who sponsored the law and Haven’s immediate supervisor. By Oct. 22, his supervisor informed Haven that disciplinary action up to termination was being taken against him. Three days later, Haven submitted his resignation with an end day of Nov. 28, 2022.
Havens has left Montana for a food safety job in Walla Walla, WA, and his Helena, MT, attorney has filed an administrative action with the Montana Human Rights Bureau for violations charging political discrimination and the state’s fair practice code.
Havens explains in the complaint that he went through normal channels, first with an email to the department’s staff attorney, Robert Lishman. He shared his concerns about the 2021 law with Lishman. Havens said: “The creation of the draft email regarded the use of interstate food ingredients under the 2021 MLFCA was unopposed by my immediate supervisor and similar to another legal argument I successfully argued to Lishan concerning the 2021 MLFCA. . .”
“It is common for DPHHS employees with advanced knowledge on specialized topics of law to send comments on current law and published legislative bills to supervisors, legislators, and staff attorneys” according to the complaint.
Havens sent his legal review to Lishman and State Sen. Hertz, R-Polson, to advance changes to the 2021 law during the 2023 legislative session. Havens said in the complaint that he included Sen. Hertz because the Senator is an affected party and his inclusion is just a “cornerstone of democratic management.”
Havens says Sen. Hertz accused him of being a “constant critic” of the 2021 MLFCA and was missing state resources. That left Haven with the understanding that Hertz’s political beliefs supported the high-risk aspects of the 2021 law. The senator copied DPHHS Director Charles Brereton and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras in his response to Havens.
Havens assays the senator’s charge that he was misusing state resources “does not make sense.” He says his analysis of the law was within the “course and scope of my employment.”
It was “eight hours” after Hertz responded to Havens that he received a critical response from his immediate supervisor.
Just ahead of learning he was going to be the subject of disciplinary action on Oct. 34, 2022, Havens was successful in obtaining his current position in Washington State. As he was making his exit from Montana, he was suspended without pay. “The notice was riddled with mischaracterizations and inaccuracies, written to purge my judgment, service, and character, and was a pretext to discipline me for my political beliefs” according to the Havens complaint.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)