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Montana Editorial Roundup

July 3, 2019

Missoulian, June 30, on restoring funding for the National Bison Range:

Our beloved National Bison Range, a place unlike any other within the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, is not getting the kind of support it needs to meet its vast potential as a world-class sanctuary to hundreds of wild bison.

The 18,500-acre-plus range was established along the Mission Mountain Range within the Flathead Reservation more than a century ago, and today welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the globe each year. They come to soak up the incomparable beauty of the place, absorb a bit of the region’s rich history and culture and, of course, to watch the herds of buffalo roam. Four nearby wildlife refuges and a wetland management district make up a larger complex that sustains numerous native plant and animal species.

But the range is suffering from a lack of funds, unresolved management disputes and unreliable leadership at the federal level. Unknotting the tangle of interests to produce an effective management plan has proven difficult at best, and will likely require more time yet. However, there’s no reason at all to continue depriving the range of the funding it needs to operate effectively and sustainably.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who call the Flathead Reservation home have long maintained strong claims to the National Bison Range lands and its wildlife. Over the decades, they have fought for a more substantial role in managing the range, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waffled over one plan after another.

It appeared long overdue progress would at last be made — and much-needed attention would at last be paid — when Ryan Zinke was tapped to lead the Interior Department in 2017. In the time before he took office, the federal government announced a plan to officially transfer management of the range to the tribes.

But then Zinke announced that his agency would again be “changing course,” thus leaving the future of the range in limbo. And now that he has been replaced by Secretary David Bernhardt, the range is all but certain to continue to languish.

Even before Zinke’s tenure, since 2015, the range has limped along with just one-third of the annual budget it was previously allotted. For staff, this has meant significantly reduced hours and personnel. For the public, it has meant reduced visitor center hours. And for the range itself, it has meant forgoing building repairs and delaying other maintenance projects, such as fixing sections of fencing.

Last Sunday, the Missoulian shared the results of a 10-month investigation into the problems plaguing the Bison Range Complex. That report revealed the results of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to divert more than $624,000 from the range in a single year, and the effects of cutting the range’s annual budget from as much as $2.7 million from 2012 to 2014, to just $1.2 million today.

The diverted money was intended to seal a final agreement between the tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but even after Zinke nixed that deal, the money was never restored to the range.

Missoulian reporter Patrick Reilly filed a freedom of information request to learn that range staff was cut by more than half between 2015 and 2019, that cracks in the visitor center building were not being addressed, and that sections of the 15-mile perimeter fence were rotting, putting both wildlife and the public at risk.

He also noted that Bison Range manager Jeff King was calling attention to the deteriorating situation back in May 2017, when King wrote, “we are (past) the muscle and bone and in to the marrow on our ability to even manage our highest priorities, and even those things are suffering.”

It’s clear from the records that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in using funds marked for range operations for other purposes. It’s also clear from the string of broken federal proposals that the CSKT have never been afforded their due say in guiding the future of the range.

The tribes can be forgiven some measure of skepticism on the merits of making agreements with the federal government. Nonetheless, they ought to be invited back to negotiations and assured their voice will no longer be ignored.

In years past, groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Blue Goose Alliance have successfully argued the case for continued federal oversight of the range. And it’s only right that federal oversight should attend any use of federal funds. Those are, after all, dollars that belong to the people of the United States, and the people have a right and a responsibility to ensure they are spent in a way that reflects the will and the wishes of the people.

A good management agreement will recognize the tribes’ indisputable ties to the range lands and wildlife, while incorporating an oversight structure that satisfies the public’s interest as well.

Montana’s congressional delegates should be pressuring the federal officials at every level to come to the table with CSKT leaders to hash out a new agreement without delay. In the meantime, they ought to be calling for a full restoration of funding so the range can get back up to speed. It will take time to make needed repairs and hire new personnel; the range should not suffer further postponements.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have a job to do: Make sure the National Bison Range has the funding it needs to maintain its reputation as the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2XoIJHd

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Independent Record, June 27, on lacking transparency in Helena city government:

The soul of democracy is transparency, which is not something Helena residents are getting from their city leaders right now.

Some city employees have recently told reporters on multiple occasions that they are no longer allowed to provide information on a variety of topics, directing questions to Helena’s new city manager instead.

The problem is, City Manager Ana Cortez and Mayor Wilmot Collins haven’t been particularly forthcoming either.

In the last few months, reporters have had trouble getting information from the city on issues as basic as a street closure and a frozen water main that left a half dozen Helena businesses without water. And the questions are continuing to pile up.

In May, the city approved a $52,630 contract with a company that submitted a proposal 23 days after the RFP deadline “at the request of Helena City Manager Ana Cortez,” even though the RFP specifically states “Submittals delivered after the posted deadline will not be considered for selection.” City officials said they extended the deadline to get more applicants, though they have yet to say whether that extension was publicly advertised and have not yet responded to a June 10 records request for a version of the RFP that reflects the new deadline. Cortez also declined to say why she requested the late proposal instead of contracting with another company that submitted a lower bid on time.

Earlier this month Cortez missed a city commission meeting and many of the other appointments listed on her public calendar over the course of several days, and she would not say whether she was gone for professional or personal reasons. Every member of the city commission also declined to say why the city manager was missing her appointments. When contacted by phone about the city manager’s absence, Collins told a reporter “no comments ever” and hung up, before calling back to say he would not talk about personnel issues. The mayor then referred questions to City Attorney Thomas Jodoin, who also declined to comment on the matter.

The city recently denied a public records request for the minutes from a June 7 city commission meeting, which included a closed-door executive session to discuss “personnel matters,” because the draft document has not yet been approved by the city commission. This likely violates a district court ruling that says draft documents held by a public body must be open to public inspection, according to a letter to the city from Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who specializes in open records and open meetings laws.

After a community member at last week’s Hometown Helena event asked whether the city could afford to manage the 72 acres recently donated by Prickly Pear Land Trust, Cortez said policy questions like that would have to be directed to the mayor and city commission. When reached by a reporter later that day, the mayor said he would have to call back with an answer, but the call never came.

Cortez has declined to answer questions about the two department heads who were placed on administrative leave and four who resigned in recent months, though a public records request later produced documents showing the fire chief stepped down amid an investigation into his unprofessional behavior. After a reporter asked one high-ranking city official about the disciplinary action taken against him, the city manager told the editor in a profanity-laden phone call that she does not consider performance issues involving city employees to be public matters.

Cortez has also declined to answer questions about an issue that followed her from her last job as assistant city manager in Yakima, Washington. In March of this year, the Yakima Police Patrolmans Association accused Cortez and Yakima’s city manager of providing “misleading or vague information” to the city council to give the impression that the city was overspending on public safety needs. Cortez directed questions about the issue to Yakima’s public information officer.

Our reporters aren’t the only ones who have noticed a lack of transparency in the ranks of Helena’s government. City commission candidate Emily Dean said she had difficulties obtaining an advance copy of the city’s preliminary budget, and city commission candidate Sean Logan said the lack of transparency surrounding recent rate increases and staff turnover is part of what inspired him to run for office this year.

We recently invited the mayor and city manager to meet with our editorial board to discuss these and other issues, and to talk about how we can work together to open up the lines of communication between the city, the newspaper and the community. Both officials said that meeting would have to wait until the city hires its own public information officer, which Cortez noted should happen “fairly soon.”

It’s unclear why the mayor and city manager need a PIO to do a job their predecessors seemed to have no trouble taking care of on their own, and Helena residents deserve to have direct access to their government decision-makers without having to go through an intermediary.

We also doubt this new PIO will be allowed to answer many of the questions other city officials are refusing to address. But if creating this new position is what it takes to make Helena’s government open and accessible again, we wholeheartedly welcome the change.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2Jku99R

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Billings Gazette, June 27, on Republicans’ criticism of flying the rainbow flag at the Montana Capitol:

Several thousand people turned out for the Big Sky Pride parade Saturday in Helena on a weekend that Gov. Steve Bullock ordered the rainbow flag to fly on a Capitol flagpole that usually displays the Montana flag.

The two-day flag switch didn’t sit well with some Montana Republicans who blasted Bullock Monday. Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, issued a statement calling it “an unmistakable act of disrespect to our state and the people and institutions we serve.”

Hertz and Sales accused Bullock of using the rainbow flag display “for political gain” in his presidential election bid and berated him for failing “to leave his political activism on the campaign trail and off state property.”

The GOP leaders made the rainbow flag display news. The story of their criticism was reported statewide and nationwide. If Bullock was aiming to garner votes from “well-financed, radical left wing ideologues” as he critics allege, then those same Republicans helped him to get that publicity.

A few other Republicans office holders publicly criticized the Capitol rainbow flag. On Tuesday, Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, announced that he would request drafting of legislation on “protocol for flying the state flag over the Capitol building.” In a news release from the Senate Republicans’ spokesman, Cuffe was quoted criticizing Bullock for “misuse of power.”

As far as leaving politics on the campaign trail, we recall that Sales, who is running for secretary of state, started the 2019 Legislature by proposing that Montana state government contribute millions of dollars in state funds to build President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. There was no politics in what Sales proposed?

Was it a misuse of power for Republican and Democratic governors to allow the Montana flag to be replaced with the Irish flag on St. Patrick’s Day? That switch has been a tradition for four decades.

Four years ago, rainbow flags generated pride and prejudice when flown at Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs campus as part of a nationwide tribute to LGBTQ veterans who have honorably served or are serving in the U.S. military. The Gazette heard from Montanans who applauded the VA for honoring LGBTQ vets, others objected to the rainbow flags on the Fort Harrison campus.

In a response to Hertz and Sales, on Tuesday Bullock wrote: “Contrary to your statement that the Pride flag represents a political movement, the flag actually represents civil rights and social and economic equality for Montanans of the LGBTQ+ community.”

The rainbow critics claim they are objecting to the absence of the Montana flag, although their response makes it obvious that their primary objection is the presence of the Pride flag.

We can have our state flag and a rainbow flag, too. Place the Montana flag at the top of the flagpole, where it usually is, and fly the other flag below it. (The governor’s office reports that U.S. law requires flags of foreign nations to be displayed on separate flag poles, so the Irish flag cannot fly under the Montana flag. There is no protocol for the Montana flag.) The U.S. flag at the Montana Capitol always flies above the POW/MIA flag since Bullock ordered that display six years ago.

Fly the rainbow flag, Montana. Be proud of all our citizens — including LGBTQ Montanans.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/324UpxF

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