Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, May 29, on state and local agencies working together to open new crime lab:
The Montana Forensic Science Division has conducted more than 250 autopsies per year in Billings, although facilities for doing this volume of scientific work were woefully inadequate.
The state had only one medical examiner based in Billings. The state didn’t have its own morgue, so it used limited space at St. Vincent Healthcare. Otherwise, there would have been no place for these crucial examinations and more bodies would have been transported to the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula.
Forensic science facilities have vastly improved in Billings on Attorney General Tim Fox’s watch. Earlier this year, a new, much larger morgue opened and a second forensic pathologist, Dr. Andrea Orvik, joined Chief State Medical Examiner Dr. Rob Kurtzman on the crime lab team here. (Two other forensic pathologists work at the Missoula lab.) The new morgue is located in the same remodeled building as the Yellowstone County Coroner’s Office and the state drug testing lab.
Up until three years ago, law enforcement agencies all across Montana had to send samples of suspected meth and other illegal drugs to Missoula for chemical analysis necessary for prosecuting criminal drug distribution and possession cases. The Missoula lab was so backlogged that prosecutors in Yellowstone County were waiting nearly a year for results on some cases. The slow turnaround hindered the entire justice system.
In May 2016, the state opened the Billings Crime Lab satellite with one mission: to provide timely, accurate analysis of suspected drug samples. The backlog and turnaround time decreased substantially while the lab workload grew as Montana prosecutors filed more felony drug cases.
Fox found funding to set up the drug testing lab in 2016, even though the law authorizing the lab failed to appropriate funds.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito proposed the lab and championed the cause in the Legislature because the Missoula lab backlog was slowing down Yellowstone County courts and keeping some suspects in jail longer than they would be if the cases could be completed.
“This is a long time coming,” Twito said Thursday at a media open house to show off the new crime lab. “Without a functioning crime lab, we wouldn’t have successful investigations. The old facility was inadequate. This will save taxpayer money in the long run.”
With too little cooler space for bodies, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office often had to pay funeral homes to hold bodies pending exams. That cost the county around $50,000 a year, according to Sheriff Mike Linder.
When a state medical examiner wasn’t available to conduct an autopsy, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office had to pick up the tab for private pathologists to do the exam, and also paid these doctors for their time in depositions and court testimony. The new crime lab has teleconference equipment that will allow the professional staff to provide information and court testimony anywhere in Montana without additional expense to counties.
Yellowstone County leaders recognized the benefit of this co-location. The County Commission appropriated $150,000 for remodeling the morgue and offices in rented space. The state Legislature allocated $800,000.
The Billings Crime Lab is a great example of how government should work: Cooperation between state and local agencies, improved efficiency that fosters teamwork and saves taxpayers unnecessary expense. Give credit to Fox, Twito, Linder, the county coroners and the crime lab staff for working together to solve the problems. Billings and eastern Montana also are fortunate that our local hospitals, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare, were willing to house forensic services until the state built the crime lab eastern Montana needs.
Montana Standard, May 26, on Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign of president:
Steve Bullock has been running for president for less than two weeks. In a race with 22 other Democratic candidates, he has quietly gotten off to a very good start.
That’s not to say that he should start measuring the Oval Office for new drapes. His candidacy is by its nature insurgent and carries exceedingly long odds of success.
Depending on how one defines that word “success.”
What is beginning to distinguish him from a dozen or more of his fellow aspirants is that he actually brings both a policy message and a political rationale to the stump.
The former — “Get dark money out of politics” — is something that well may resonate with Iowa voters who will soon be very fatigued at the barrage of dark-money-fueled negative ads that will be flooding local media.
It probably is as useful as any other single-subject message out there, including climate change, which is seemingly Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s raison d’etre in the race.
The latter — “I’m the only Democratic governor reelected in 2016 in a state Trump carried” — is likely to be even more significant in the minds of those pragmatic Democrats focused on “electability.”
His other ace in the hole: The ability to appeal to Iowans. As he loves to point out, his current constituents have a fair amount in common with the corn-producing flatlanders he’s currently wooing. Montana and Iowa have agricultural roots. And the Iowa Democratic electorate is probably a lot closer ideologically to the coalition of Democrats and Trump supporters who voted him back into office two and a half years ago than it is to the progressive-left voters supporting some of the other candidates.
It remains unclear just how well Bullock will have to do in Iowa in order to advance (because the answer to that depends on how other individual members of the rest of the field do). But it was eye-opening last week when CNN’s Chris Cilizza ranked him 9th among the candidates.
While many would prefer Bullock to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Steve Daines, we believe his presidential candidacy is on balance good for Montana. Just how good depends, again, on one’s definition of success. If Bullock were to end up, say, being a Cabinet secretary, it could be a significant appointment for the state.
More than 90 years ago, another Helena lawyer, Thomas J. Walsh, who ran for president for about five minutes in 1928 — his candidacy, barely more than theoretical, was already toast by this time that year — would have been FDR’s attorney general four years later had he not died before being able to take the post. Bullock could be a competent attorney general for whoever ends up beating him in the Democratic primary race.
If anyone does.
And, double if, whoever beats him, also beats Donald Trump.
If nothing else, all this gives the state’s citizens some skin in the game and makes the primary contests an interesting spectator sport. Perhaps we can’t ask for more than that.
Regardless, getting dark money out of politics is definitely a Montana value, and we congratulate the governor for making it a national campaign issue.
Daily Inter Lake, May 23, on rebuilding a historic wilderness chalet in Glacier National Park:
The final push to rebuild Glacier Park’s Sperry Chalet will begin in earnest in July when the snow finally recedes from the historic structure’s stone walls.
The National Park Service announced Tuesday that Dick Anderson Construction will finish the project it began last summer, awarding the Great Falls company a $4.73 million contract for the work. This next phase will mostly center on masonry repairs, roofing and interior work. It’s expected the chalet will be ready for visitors in 2020, just three years after it was gutted in the Sprague Fire that torched thousands of acres in the park.
In the two phases combined, nearly $9 million in federal funding has been allocated for the rebuild, but private philanthropy has played a major role as well.
The park service is quick to note that rebuilding the chalet at its original site wouldn’t have happened without the “quick response and financial support” of public donations made through the Glacier National Park Conservancy. The Columbia Falls-based nonprofit helped pull together funding for emergency stabilization of the structure immediately following the fire, while subsequent donations helped support phase 1 construction and wintertime overflights.
All totaled nearly $400,000 has been contributed to date through the conservancy, and an additional $236,000 grant will support this summer’s work. Those funds are earmarked to pay for meals for the construction crew who will live on site all summer, as well as maintaining Sperry’s amenities for hikers passing through.
“Since literally day one, private donors have stepped up from around the world to support this extraordinary public-private partnership,” Conservancy Director Doug Mitchell told the Inter Lake.
He’s right. The Sperry rebuild stands as a shining example of how private-public partnerships can help accomplish a common goal.
The conservancy is still about $75,000 short of their phase 2 funding effort, and we encourage those who value the park and Glacier’s history to contribute. One hundred percent of donations made through the Sperry Action Fund go directly toward the Sperry rebuild.