Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, June 4, on new Montana laws aimed at increasing protections for children:
Last fall, a civil lawsuit filed against a former Custer County High School athletic trainer and the school district sought a measure of justice for 19 men who alleged that they were molested by James “Doc” Jensen under the guise of athletic conditioning.
The lawsuit rocked Montana, and led to remarkably swift and wide-ranging government action in the months since the allegations were first reported in The Billings Gazette in September.
Jensen, 78, now is in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges. But the state justice system has no power to prosecute him for crimes against high school students committed in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The Montana statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors was 10 years when Jensen molested his victims.
Montana legislators quickly responded to close that legal loophole. Ultimately, House Bill 640 combined several other bills and passed the Legislature with unanimous support from both chambers. Gov. Steve Bullock signed it into law on May 7.
HB640 eliminated the statute of limitations for sex crimes against victims under age 18 for crimes committed on our after May 7. Changes that toughen criminal statutes can’t be applied retroactively in the United States. From now on, though, no child molester will escaped justice in Montana because the clock ran out on criminal prosecution.
HB640 revised, but didn’t eliminate, the statute of limitations for civil injury claims arising from sexual abuse of people under age 18.
In separate laws, the governor and legislature this year restored longer mandatory minimum sentences for child molesters and explicitly criminalized sexual relations between school and treatment center staff and their students.
By asserting their legal rights in court, the 19 Miles City victims helped many other Montanans. Additional victims of have come forward, so the number of plaintiffs increased to 32. Jensen may have molested over 100 students during his years at the Miles City high school.
Miles City attorneys Dan Rice and Bryant Martin, along with Billings attorney John Heenan represent Jensen’s victims in the civil lawsuit. “The courthouse doors should never be closed to victims of child sexual abuse,” Heenan told The Gazette in a recent interview.
“I marvel at their courage,” Heenan said of his clients. “These guys had buried it away. A lot of these guys hadn’t spoken about it.”
The Jensen case, not unlike other sex abuse cases involving large numbers of students, begs questions about why adults responsible for protecting the youth didn’t. The new law puts stricter requirements on mandatory reporters, including school staff, to promptly report child abuse to the state Department of Public Health and Human Service, and requires DPHHS to relay sexual abuse reports within five days to the appropriate county attorney.
County attorneys have numerous new mandates under this 2019 law, including: maintain records of child sexual abuse reports for 25 years, notify the person filing the report that it has been received and to file a report every six months with the Montana attorney general. These requirements take effect July 1. Failing to report child sexual abuse is now a felony offense for adults who are required by law to report.
Time will tell how well these new efforts protect Montana children. Yet the fact that lawmakers and Bullock acted reflects long overdue attention to an insidious type of abuse that can traumatize victims throughout their lives.
The men who spoke up to bring Jensen to justice deserve thanks. More Montanans now realize that such unspeakable crimes can happen here — unless adults act and the law effectively protects children.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 2, on Gallatin County program that partners mental health officials with law enforcement:
Gallatin County recently established the first systematic collaboration between mental health professionals and law enforcement in Montana. Based on experiences in other parts of the country, it should have happened a long time ago. And it certainly should become much more widespread in this state.
No matter what the situation, when police officers or sheriff’s deputies show up with badges on their chests and weapons on their belts, the stress level is probably going to go up. And that can mean trouble for everyone involved, especially those who are dealing with mental illness. Now there will be a better way to approach these situations.
Earlier this month, Karen Patty, a crisis therapist with Gallatin Mental Health, took up office space in the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. She will be called to the scene when officers are confronted with a mental health crisis. In many situations this could make the difference between tragedy and much more positive outcomes.
Local law enforcement agencies have voiced strong support for the program. They say it gives them a much more constructive alternative for responding to victims of mental health crises than just slapping on the cuffs and taking them to the hospital.
The collaboration with Gallatin Mental Health actually began in January as a community-based crisis response pilot program. The health center personnel have been working with police officers and deputies on responding together to situations involving mental health crises. Now that Patty has a desk in the sheriff’s office, she will be given her own car and be available to be dispatched to problem situations.
The pilot program was paid for by private donations, but the money runs out at the end of June. Local governments, Gallatin County and the cities of Bozeman and Belgrade, need to work out a plan to continue this program. By sharing the costs, the financial burden on each government entity will be kept to a minimum. The law enforcement agencies are also hoping to expand the program in the future by putting additional crisis therapists on the payroll.
Historically, advocacy for the victims of mental illness has been sorely lacking in Gallatin County. For far too many years, the policy has been to lock them up or ship them out. Those policies were inhumane and only aggravated problems.
This program is taking mental health crisis response to a new level. It deserves the wholehearted support of all the communities it serves.
Missoulian, June 2, on plan for downtown Missoula:
The unveiling of a new draft Missoula Downtown Master Plan last month presents downtown residents, workers and visitors with a vision of a vibrant urban core that both preserves its unique history and adapts to the modern needs of a growing populace. It’s the result of hours of community meetings and public input — with more than 1,000 individuals participating in various planning events during the weeklong public design workshop in January alone — and there remains plenty of time and opportunity to weigh in before a final draft is completed.
As these ambitious plans wend their way to final approval, the looming question is how to pay for them.
As a community, Missoulians may all agree that, say, electric streetcars would make a good addition to downtown transportation options, or that more parking garages are needed. But the burden of paying for most public amenities falls almost entirely on the backs of property taxpayers, and in recent years, it’s become clear Missoula cannot continue to rely on this time-worn tax system.
That’s why any realistic discussion about making substantial improvements to Missoula’s urban infrastructure — streets, sidewalks or parking spaces — ought to include due consideration of how to more equitably pay for them.
Unfortunately, current funding options are limited.
The Montana Legislature recently approved a statewide infrastructure package that contains some money for local projects, but it’s not nearly enough to take care of all the needs in every community, and almost certainly will not help Missoula realize its entire downtown vision. The most recent report produced for the Montana Infrastructure Coalition determined that repairing just the highest-priority water and wastewater infrastructure in the state would cost about $1.5 billion. The same report noted that the Montana Department of Transportation pegged the costs of new construction and maintaining existing Montana roads and bridges at about $14.8 billion through 2022. The 2019 Legislature provided funding for $2.7 billion in infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, a local option sales tax remains a nonstarter, having been shot down once again in the most recent legislative session. Although “resort towns” such as Whitefish and Gardiner are allowed to collect a resort tax of up to 3%, generating millions of dollars to help defray the wear and tear on local infrastructure from legions of out-of-town tourists, communities with populations of more than 5,500 are still not allowed to make use of this option under current state law, and there appears to be little appetite to change that at the state level.
So it’s up to local government, private businesses and nonprofits to work together with state and federal agencies to identify Missoula’s most critical infrastructure needs, now and in the future, and hash out a plan to pay for important projects. To that end, the new Missoula Downtown Master Plan is an indispensable guide that ensures these various entities are all working off the same page and toward the same goals.
Missoula’s current downtown master plan is about 10 years old, and while it contains some goals that have yet to be met, it’s safe to say that the downtown and surrounding areas are flourishing in large part thanks to this guiding document. The new draft plan notes that the current Master Plan recommendations “resulted in more than $850 million in private and public investment within the Downtown area.”
Indeed, the past decade has seen a boom in downtown activity, from new development to enhanced public facilities such as accessible sidewalks, new parking structures and modernized parking meters.
What will the next decade bring? It’s up to Missoulians to decide. The 300-plus page draft plan contains a range of intriguing ideas:
. Parking remains high on the public radar. The report devotes more than 30 pages to different parking solutions, from building new parking garages on the Hip Strip and near the railroad tracks to instituting a parking tax.
. Convert the one-way streets to two-way avenues.
. Add trees, landscaping and outdoor seating.
. Encourage murals and building design that “activates the alleys,” opening them up for small shops, galleries, etc.
. The report also notes a number of ways to encourage people to use alternative transportation to free up parking, from shuttles to a streetcar or trolley.
. Develop surface parking lots or single-story buildings into multi-story buildings while preserving historic facades.
. Encourage a greater mix of uses. Jason King, senior project director and principal at consultant Dover, Kohl & Partners, noted that Missoula zoning currently discourages mixed uses in many places.
. Add a Caras Park gateway feature at the intersection of West Front and Ryman streets.
. Enhance river access points and areas under bridges with “way finding” signage, and replace some pavement with brick pavers, possibly including designs that pay homage to beaded patterns used by Native American tribes in western Montana.
The full draft plan is available online at https://missoulasdowntownmasterplan.com. The process of putting together the new plan kicked off last October with a series of community meetings hosted by the Downtown Missoula Partnership. If strong community buy-in continues, a final version could be in place before the end of this year.
When asked recently to vote on whether the draft plan is “on the right track,” a crowd at the Wilma Theatre said “yes,” with 66% doing so “with high confidence” and another 23% doing so with low confidence. Another 7% were not sure and only 4% voted “no.” These strong approval numbers point to a strong plan. But it’s easier to support certain projects when the costs are obscure.
The draft downtown plan is bold and creative. Missoula must be equally bold and creative in coming up with solid way to pay for this vision.