City passes historic ordinance
It's not often the Missoula City Council makes history. But in April, the council put aside the usual zoning disputes and budgetary squabbles to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance aimed at providing legal recourse to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people denied employment, housing or services. It's the first ordinance of its kind in Montana.
The days leading up to the vote proved contentious. City Council members were flooded with e-mails and letters from supporters and opponents alike, and the public meeting before the final vote drew hundreds of demonstrators from both sides waving signs and chanting along W. Pine Street. A line of speakers for the meeting stretched out of a standing-room-only council chambers, past a full overflow room showing the meeting on closed circuit television, and onto the street. The meeting itself lasted nearly seven hours.
Much of the opposition came from a newly formed group called Not My Bathroom, or NMB, which believed the law would somehow allow perverts and pedophiles to stalk women and children in women's restrooms. Despite reassurances from City Attorney Jim Nugent, who repeatedly stated that no current law prevents men entering women's restrooms, or vice versa, NMB stuck to its argument.
"I am just appalled that you would even consider letting 'Cross Dressers' into the women's bathrooms," wrote April Armstrong in an e-mail sent to council on March 25. "Horrified is the word...I don't really care what anyone does in their own homes, but I sure expect that families can keep their rights to privacy. It says 'women' on the door for a reason."
After the ordinance passed by a 10–2 vote, NMB and another arm of the group calling itself "Right to Vote Missoula" tried repeatedly to initiate a voter referendum on the ordinance. Each time, Nugent shot down the request—first because the main petitioners, including NMB co-founder Tei Nash, were not city residents, and later because of errors in the requests. A Missoula District Court judge later backed Nugent's decision.
Since the ordinance passed, Pat Morgan at Missoula Municipal Court says there have been no issues with misuse of bathrooms, nor reported problems with the ordinance.
"I haven't had a complaint," Morgan says. "I haven't heard any talk."
Big rigs raise concerns
Montana buzzed with citizen questions and complaints early in 2010 over a bid by ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil to ship 200 hulking high-and-wide loads over Lolo Pass and through the state to Canada. The loads, containing mining equipment destined for the Alberta tar sands operation, became the focus of numerous public debates and prompted the formation of several grassroots opposition groups. The Kearl Module Transportation Project (KMTP) would require construction or modification of 75 highway turnouts (paid for by ExxonMobil), cause traffic delays of up to 10 minutes at a time, and come with no feasible contingency plan from the oil conglomerate if one of the loads should go off the road.
As the year progressed, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director Jim Lynch repeatedly denied claims that approval of the KMTP would create a permanent high-and-wide corridor. Critics of the big rigs loudly panned MDT for its refusal to conduct a full environmental impact statement. In response, Lynch told the Indy in May that "it isn't like they're building a brand new road somewhere."
But in late spring, ConocoPhillips came forward with its own proposal to ship four large coke drums through Idaho and Montana to its refinery in Billings, seemingly affirming the notion of the KMTP as a precedent-setting project. Opposition in Idaho reached the court system in August when a group of three Lochsa River residents asked a state judge to block ConocoPhillips' big rigs. The attempt failed after several months, and Idaho issued the necessary permits for the loads in early December.
The Missoula City Council in August began debating a different method of holding up the rigs: increasing the cost for city big rig permits from $100 to $200. The Indy reported the estimated cost to ExxonMobil at $40,000. MDT has yet to issue permits for the KMTP, but hundreds of utility lines have already been raised or buried in preparation, and loads belonging to both ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips are now lying in wait at the Port of Lewiston in Idaho.
Howling over wolves
Last year ended with a modicum of clarity surrounding the status of wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had removed the contentious canine from the endangered species list, and Montana and Idaho thereby implemented their first hunting seasons, widely hailed as successful by state wildlife officials. But 2010 brought a dizzying series of rulings and repercussions suggesting we're further away from common ground than ever before.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that FWS's decision to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming, was illegal because it was based on political boundaries, not ecological ones. Molloy's decision sent wolves back to the endangered species list—and stripped Montana and Idaho of their hard-fought right to hunt the predator.
Idaho didn't respond well. After an effort to restore state management failed, Gov. Butch Otter, in October, ordered state wildlife managers to stop arresting poachers or even investigate illegal wolf kills, which might have incited a backwoods rebellion against the hated wolf had he not, a day later, recanted and told Idahoans not to shoot wolves.
Montana responded more reasonably, deciding—for the time being—to keep state wolf managers on the ground while it continues to pursue jurisdiction. But the state did eliminate the wolf coordinator post, held by Carolyn Sime for a decade. It also sought to reduce wolf numbers in the West Fork of the Bitterroot under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. Idaho sought the same in its Lolo elk management zone. The status of those proposals won't be known for months.
Meanwhile, Montana's congressional delegation ran an end-around. Rep. Denny Rehberg released a draft bill that would simply prohibit designating wolves in Idaho and Montana as endangered. Sens. Baucus and Tester followed suit, introducing legislation that would remove wolves from the endangered species list upon the Secretary of Interior approving each state's management plan. Enviros cried foul, claiming such bills would set a dangerous precedent and, as Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council put it, "rip the heart out of the Endangered Species Act."
The repercussions continue to ripple. Just last week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed notice of its intent to sue the feds for failing to develop a recovery plan for wolves in the lower 48 states, as is required, the group argues, by the Endangered Species Act. The suit is yet another legal salvo sure to trigger even more contempt from anti-wolf advocates.
Red tide election
The midterm elections were marked nationally by the emergence of the Tea Party, backlash against incumbents and a general frustration with Democratic leaders. Montana wasn't much different.
Incumbent Rep. Denny Rehberg, who joined the Tea Party Caucus before the primary, trounced two Republican challengers in June—Billings' A.J. Otjen and Flathead Valley Constitutionalist Mark French—and then handily defeated California lawyer turned Montana rancher Dennis McDonald in the general election. He begins his sixth term in Washington in January.
At the state level, voters gave the GOP a six-seat majority in the Senate and the single largest majority it has ever gained in the House of Representatives.
Nowhere was that rise in conservative strength more present than Ravalli County, where all 14 Republican candidates on the ticket swept into office. The momentum was especially evident in the race for Ravalli County Treasurer's Office, where Democratic incumbent JoAnne Johnson lost to Republican Mary Hudson-Smith, an employee of hers who ran almost no campaign and who earlier this year became the subject of disciplinary action under Johnson for rude and insubordinate behavior. As Ravalli County Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff—an independent defeated by Republican challenger Suzy Foss—said shortly after the election, "This was a nationwide Republican blitz, and we got caught up in it."
Despite the overwhelming trend to the right, Missoula managed to maintain its progressive bent. Democrats won in all of the local districts except one, and 25-year-old Bryce Bennett became the state's first openly gay male legislator with his victory in House District 92.
Perhaps Missoula's biggest race, however, transcended party lines. Acting Sheriff Mike McMeekin announced his retirement, leaving the position wide open for Republican upstart Nick Lisi and veteran sheriff's officers Brad Giffin and Carl Ibsen. Ibsen—the Independent candidate—ran a close race against Democrat Giffin, but clinched the election with a little more than 42 percent of the vote.
The green rush
Perhaps no other industry in the state exploded in 2010 like the medical marijuana industry—nor has any created as much controversy.
The number of medical marijuana patients on the state's rolls jumped from 7,339 on Jan. 1 to 26,429 by the end of November. The surge was reflected in the huge number of pot shops popping up across the state, sparking knee-jerk zoning bans and moratoriums from Whitefish to Billings.
The meteoric growth came after the Obama administration, in October 2009, announced that federal authorities would defer to state marijuana laws. The decision opened the floodgates in Montana, and exposed the Medical Marijuana Act voters approved in 2004 as being too vague to adequately regulate the industry.
Among the more high-profile examples was Missoula-based entrepreneur Jason Christ. The controversial caregiver and patient used the law's ambiguities to launch traveling cannabis clinics that, for better or worse, approved hundreds of patients in a day.
The "Wild West" nature of the industry may ultimately prove to work against it. For months a legislative committee worked on a medical marijuana reform bill to be debated when the Montana Legislature convenes in early 2011. More conservative lawmakers, like Jim Shockley, R-Victor, want to repeal the Medical Marijuana Act altogether.
But marijuana appears to have become too mainstream for outright repeal of the act. Just two weeks ago, prospective jurors in Missoula nearly nullified a case because many of them refused to convict someone for possessing a small amount of marijuana, casting doubt over whether the judge could seat a truly representative jury at all.
King George ends reign
University of Montana President George Dennison dropped a bombshell during an afternoon address last January that was supposed to focus on potential budget cuts: After a 20-year stint in Main Hall, he hoped to retire by the end of the school year.
"I consider it a high honor and rare privilege to have served as president of a wonderful institution, made so by the people who constitute it," Dennison said during the address.
From record enrollments to sweatshop apparel dustups, each year of Dennison's long tenure brought a new round of criticisms and accolades. More than anything, he'll be remembered for his aggressive expansion of the campus and the most rampant rash of construction in UM history; he repeatedly denied he had an "edifice complex."
UM's Presidential Search Advisory Committee went to work finding a replacement, and in August announced it had selected three finalists—although two dropped out before being publicly named. That left Royce Engstrom, UM's well respected provost and vice president of academic affairs, as the only remaining candidate and a shoe-in for the job.
Montana's Board of Regents voted unanimously Sept. 23 to appoint Engstrom as Dennison's successor. He officially took over on Oct. 15.
Ripples of the recession
The Great Recession marked 2009, but 2010 still showed the lingering effects of the nation's crippled economy. Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. announced the closure of its Frenchtown mill in late 2009—and the subsequent loss of more than 400 local jobs—but operations extended into early January so the plant could fulfill outstanding orders.
Longtime Missoula retailers announced closures at the beginning of the year, as well. Macy's Corporation announced Jan. 5 its intention to close its Missoula location on March 10, putting an additional 55 people out of a job and delivering a major blow to one of downtown's biggest shopping attractions. On the same day, Brady's Sportman's Surplus said its Brooks Street location would close; owner Terry Brady bought the store in 1971 and wanted to retire. Downtown's Moose Creek Mercantile, known for the wood-carved moose that greeted customers, announced its closure a few days later. In May, the venerable Crystal Video, which had been open for 23 years, finally closed on the Hip Strip. In June, Pipestone Mountaineering, a downtown mainstay since the mid-'90s, also shuttered due to slow sales.
The cumulative effect of these closures and others pushed the state's unemployment rates up. In fact, in February, the jobless rate in Missoula County topped out at 7.7 percent, the highest rate in more than 15 years.
Other parts of the local economy also took a hit in 2010. Foreclosures in Missoula County continued to rise after more than doubling between 2008 and 2009. Home prices dropped to a median price of $204,250 after rising to nearly $220,000 in 2007.
However, as 2011 approaches, there's increasing evidence of a turnaround. In particular, after months of speculation surrounding the fate of the Macy's building, Octagon Partners, a Charlottesville, Va.-based real estate investment firm that specializes in transforming historic properties into retail and residential developments, confirmed its interest in the property in November. And nearly a year after Smurfit-Stone Container mothballed its Frenchtown mill, the site has a prospective buyer, though officials remain mum on who it might be.
School board follies
While students were enjoying the waning weeks of summer vacation, the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) found itself in the middle of an intense controversy. Five-year school board trustee Nancy Pickhardt exercised a stunning lack of judgment July 28 when she left a profane voicemail message for two private citizens—one a retired teacher—telling them to "go fuck yourselves."
Pickhardt's recorded outburst came in response to intense public criticism over a 10 percent pay raise awarded by the school board to Superintendent Alex Apostle. The school board had in previous months denied a raise for district teachers, and the uproar over Apostle's salary bump intensified when Pickhardt's message was leaked to local press.
Pickhardt offered a curt public apology during a subsequent board meeting, but the damage was done. Parents, teachers and district staff all demanded that she relinquish her position on the board, and Pickhardt tendered her resignation in late August at the encouragement of several fellow board members.
Cobell case settled
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, thought her 13-year legal battle with the U.S. Department of the Interior had ended early last December when a district court judge issued a $3.4 billion class action settlement in her favor. Cobell was the chief plaintiff in a case alleging mismanagement of Individual Indian Money accounts by the federal government.
But the settlement stalled repeatedly on the path to congressional approval, experiencing a total of seven deadline extensions in less than nine months. Cobell spent much of 2010 negotiating with Republicans in Washington, D.C., and confessed to the Indy in October that she'd "rather be in court."
The settlement—poised to benefit more than 300,000 American Indians nationwide—experienced further setbacks when it was paired with the Pigford II settlement, a second string of federally funded payments to black farmers who were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cobell's novice politicking paid off, however, and the settlement passed the U.S. Senate on Nov. 19 and the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 30. President Barack Obama officially signed it into law Dec. 8—a full year and a day after the settlement was originally reached in court.