On Thursday, July 22, billionaire Missoula industrialist Dennis Washington—or more likely his spokespeople—employed the good offices of the Missoulian to have his birthday announcement trumpeted on page 1. The nominal news was that Washington, 70, was celebrating his birthday over the course of the week—they never did say what day—and that rubbernecking Missoulians might expect to catch a novel glance of mono-nominal celebrities like Oprah and Schwarzenegger.
Washington’s people managed to insert not one but two pleas for privacy into the front-page story: “It is a private function with some invited guests, and we’d like to respect their privacy,” spokesman Mike Halligan told the Missoulian. “Dennis is not one to seek press coverage, or to make public something private.”
Yes, fine. And now that we’ve been officially disinvited, what about our privacy? For instance: Anyone walking on Higgins downtown north of Broadway—the red-carpet route to the Washington party’s train-ride celebration—may have noticed the presence, from early last week to Monday, of red and blue banners attached to the street lamps. “People, integrity, courage, performance, passion, perseverance, vision,” they read, in white lettering, with the corporate logo and “The Washington Companies” near the bottom.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that looked like corporate advertising on city property to us. Or, if you prefer, the ostentatious publicizing of something private.
So we made some calls.
Turns out downtown’s streetlight banners are regulated, such as they are, by the Missoula Downtown Association under the auspices of an “encroachment permit” granted by the city/county Department of Public Works. The permit has been held by MDA since 1999, and MDA Executive Director Linda McCarthy says she was “delighted” when the Washington Companies came calling, since they were the first who ever had. Washington employees paid for the banners, she said, paid for their installation, and paid to take them down. She seemed to have some difficulty understanding why anyone might have a problem with that. Washington’s birthday party, after all, seemed to fit the definition of a “special event,” which is what McCarthy understood the signs to be for.
So, we asked, if the Independent wanted to put up similar banners promoting our “Best of Missoula” events come February, we could, right?
McCarthy paused for a long moment and said, “I guess so.”
We guessed otherwise, and a call to Public Works Director Bruce Bender confirmed that, nope, that’s not really what the city had in mind when it granted MDA’s encroachment permit. It was more for public community events, preferably non-profit, as suggested by the permit’s list of examples: Farmer’s Market, A Carousel for Missoula, etc. Bender further confirmed that Dennis Washington’s private birthday bash wasn’t at all what the city had in mind when it granted the permit, and allowed as how someone—Bender didn’t seem quite sure whom—would be in touch with MDA to “clarify” the permit language, which didn’t, in fairness, specifically preclude such private displays.
In the end, the task of clarification fell to the mayor’s office, whose Kate Pope confirmed that the Washington banners “absolutely” crossed the line of the permit’s non-commercial intent. MDA was informed that public property ought not be used for private aggrandizement, and, Pope said, “We’ve learned from this.”
Heeding his plea for privacy (and fully aware of his long history of declining interviews), we didn’t even bother to seek comment from Washington on why he’s running around acting like he owns the place. Come to think of it, we’re not sure we’re in any position to prove that he doesn’t.