The Billings Gazette, Aug. 30, on making room for District Courts:

On Jan. 1, 2019, two additional District Court judges are scheduled to go to work in Yellowstone County. Our county, the busiest judicial district in Montana, could use at least six more judges right now, but two is what the Legislature approved. Two can make a significant difference in speeding up the justice system.

District judges and their office staff are state employees. But counties are responsible for providing the court space. When Yellowstone County added its sixth district judge nearly a decade ago, the County Courthouse was full already. There wasn't space for a sixth courtroom, so there are only five courtrooms and one smaller hearing room for the six judges to share. That sharing gets more complicated as more cases are filed and each judge has a growing caseload.

The Yellowstone County Courthouse is so full that the Sheriff's Office was relocated to the round building a couple of blocks east many years ago. Last week, the sheriff moved to a different building on Second Avenue North. The County Extension Office has moved across the street to the Old Chamber of Commerce building.

Where will two more judges work?

Count officials are exploring reasonable options. Because of the time needed to complete moving and remodeling, a decision must be made within 60 to 90 days, according to County Finance Director Kevan Bryan.

Last week, County Commissioners toured the Stillwater Building across Third Avenue North from the County Courthouse. That is the old federal courthouse, which now is privately owned. EEC, the Billings firm managing Stillwater renovations, has abated the asbestos contamination that was a major factor in the federal government abandoning the building.

Rather than moving six judges, courtrooms, staff, the District Court clerk and County Attorney's offices out of the courthouse, officials are looking to relocate county administration. Moving county commissioners, the finance department, clerk and recorder and auditor offices would open up the fourth floor for necessary court expansion.

The offices now on the fourth floor would fit into the third floor of the Stillwater Building, with room to spare for storage and future office needs.

The commission has directed staff to explore the possibility of purchasing the third floor. That floor is mostly a shell, so the interior can be built to accommodate the county's office needs.

The round building that the Sheriff's Department vacated is another possibility. The county already owns the property and the administrative offices could be squeezed into it. The downside is that the building (originally a savings bank) needs a new HVAC system, and the round design is inefficient. It would provide no space for future office expansion.

There would need to be a professional appraisal of the Stillwater Building's third floor before the county can even consider a purchase. By law, the county cannot pay more than the appraised value. If it's affordable, the Stillwater Building would be the county's best long-term option.

For years, county officials have been expecting some expense for court expansion. They know that funds are limited, so it is important to get the best value for the taxpayers' money: Adequate space that allows government services to operate without wasting time or energy.



The Montana Standard, Aug. 27, on a bill to aid children of methamphetamine-addicted parents:

If you're primed for a broadside about how dysfunctional Congress is, how bitter partisanship has produced paralysis, and how this has endangered our democracy, you might want to skip this.

Because even though we see evidence enough of the things mentioned above, we also see exceptions. And here's one that's important to Butte and to Montana.

Steve Daines is a Montana Republican and Gary Peters is a Michigan Democrat. But one thing the two have in common is their states' suffering with the twin scourges of methamphetamine and opioid abuse.

Sens. Daines and Peters have introduced a bill together. It's a little bill, in terms of both scope and dollars, but if passed, its impact will be felt right here. The bill would allow children to benefit from federal foster-care support payments — while staying with a parent in a licensed residential family-based drug treatment facility.

This means that if a parent is fighting drug addiction, a family doesn't necessarily have to be torn apart. A child staying with a parent during treatment is a constant reminder to the parent of the importance of success. Conversely, a child taken away and placed in foster care may never return, and a parent may well feel motivation for an improved life is already gone.

Montana has a record 3,400 children in foster care, and about a third of those are there because of methamphetamine use by parents.

In addition, the bill reauthorizes a regional partnership grant program which facilitates collaboration between local organizations and state agencies to improve the well-being of children who are in foster care or at risk of going into foster care because of parental drug abuse.

"We must work to put an end to this tragic trajectory and the meth epidemic that is closely tied to Montana's child welfare crisis," Daines said.

When support from the bill comes from everyone from Attorney General Tim Fox to Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council to Kim Dudik, Democratic legislator from Missoula, and the directors of multiple treatment programs and facilities around the state, it's clear how much this law is needed. Quite simply, it's a doorway to better outcomes for children and parents.

Get it passed, Congress, and here's a hat-tip to Sen. Daines for his efforts.



Independent Record, Aug. 27, on ensuring Helena has opportunity to participate in government deliberations:

Members of Helena's City Commission have made some pretty weighty decisions in the last couple of weeks, but you wouldn't know it from looking at their official meeting agendas.

After a lengthy discussion at an Aug. 16 administrative meeting, the mayor and commission directed city staff to remove a monument to Confederate soldiers that has stood in a city park since 1916. The commission recently approved an ordinance exempting the granite fountain from a city code requiring a special review process for demolition of structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both of these decisions were deeply personal to many in our community, with some saying the fountain is a symbol of hate that has no place in Helena and others arguing it is a historic landmark that should be explained instead of removed. And those on all sides of the issue have a legal right to participate in any city commission discussions about this issue and any other city business, with limited exceptions.

Yet the city made no mention of the Confederate fountain in the official agenda for either meeting, even though city officials knew it was going to come up. And this omission would have effectively denied people the right to participate in the conversation if we and other media outlets hadn't reported on what the commission was actually planning to do.

While an attorney who specializes in open government issues says the city may have "technically" violated open meetings law by failing to properly notice these decisions, city officials maintain that no public notice was legally required because they considered this to be an emergency.

But this isn't about what's legal. It's about what's right. And ensuring the people of Helena have the opportunity to participate in government deliberations on important issues is the right thing for our elected leaders to do.

We understand why the mayor and commission wanted to act quickly on this, but their haste was extreme and unwarranted. We also know they had time to post an emergency meeting notice, even if only a day or two in advance.

While not everyone checks the official agendas, we keep a close eye on them on the public's behalf. And the commission should do everything in its power to encourage public participation even when the discussions get uncomfortable.

Next time the mayor and commission plan to make a controversial or important decision, the least they can do is put it on the agenda.