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It was a rough year at UM, and the problems eventually landed on the university’s bottom line. In spring, rumors started to fly about devastating budget cuts. Sections of some courses were temporarily blocked out as students prepared to register for fall classes. Adjuncts began to see their duties shrinking, and rightly feared they’d be high on the chopping block.
The administration wound up enacting an $8.6 million across-the-board budget cut—far less than first suspected—but faculty members still rallied outside Main Hall in late April in protest.
The story continued to unfold this fall as UM reduced the budget by an additional $2.9 million, prompting one group of tenured professors to speak out against how the administration is handling the crisis. Mehrdad Kia spearheaded an open meeting for the faculty and public in November to address what he called an “atmosphere of fear” hanging over the campus when it comes to speaking out against Main Hall’s actions.
“The knife has come to the bone,” Kia told the November crowd.
Things are expected to get worse before they get better. UM projects another $3 million in possible cuts by spring 2014.
Despite the budget issues, UM did succeed in settling on a location for the new Missoula College building on East Broadway. The Montana Legislature approved $29 million in funding for the building, and the university is required to match that funding with an additional $3 million.
Lake County chaos
This year the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, wrapped up its inquiry of seven Lake County cops accused of a litany of dishonorable and criminal acts. The quasi-judicial board, which certifies police officers, decertified only one of the cops it investigated, Dan Duryee, formerly of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, who lied about serving in the military. It also suspended Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth, accused of nepotism and falsifying documents, for 15 years.
The other five officers, despite facing a range of allegations including poaching, perjury, ethics violations and witness tampering and intimidation, saw the complaints against them dropped or were issued minor sanctions.
The Indy published POST’s evidence against the officers in July, a year after the newspaper filed document requests under the Montana Public Records Act. Those requests landed in court. At issue was the officers’ individual privacy versus the public’s right to know their alleged offenses. Helena District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the public. The decision set a new precedent of transparency for POST, which had lacked policy on whether files detailing complaints against peace officers are public record. Now they are.
In addition to the details of the alleged offenses, the hundreds of documents released to the Indy, combined with many more subpoenaed as part of a federal suit alleging organized crime within the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, revealed the extent to which key officials at virtually every level of government went out of their way to thwart the investigations. The two primary investigators—the former POST director and a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden—became the targets of smear campaigns and left their positions; the POST director resigned under pressure, while the warden was reassigned.
The warden, Frank Bowen, was told by his superiors in mid-2012 to cut short his poaching investigation, which implicated several Lake County officers, because of election-year politics. At the time, Attorney General Steve Bullock, who had been criticized for failing to intervene in Lake County, was in the middle of a successful campaign for governor. Before a legislative committee hearing at which Bowen was called to testify, FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Satterfield threatened to fire Bowen if he said too much, and told him, “Are you willing to fall on your sword just to make the Democratic Party look bad?” FWP acknowledged the threat and gag order when it settled a grievance Bowen filed.
As for the federal suit alleging organized crime, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula dismissed it in September.
Fire on the mountain
Two major fires blackened Missoula’s skies this summer as part of the fifth most expensive firefighting year on record.
The Lolo Creek Complex, which began Aug. 18 and burned 10,902 acres, burned within eyesight of the entire Missoula valley. The fire destroyed nine structures, including four homes near Highway 12, and was named the nation’s top firefighting priority. The Forest Service ended up spending $13 million and deployed 1,000 firefighters and support personnel to contain the blaze.
The second major blaze was the Gold Pan Complex, which began July 16 and burned 43,215 acres. The fire started in Idaho and burned across the Idaho-Montana line, where as many as 1,200 firefighters battled it for months in and around the Bitterroot National Forest without much success. Rain and snow finally stifled the fire in early October. The Forest Service spent more than $11 million trying to manage the blaze.
Overall, large wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres in Montana this year, and federal and state agencies spent more than $74 million on fire suppression in the state. Nationwide, the federal government spent $1.74 billion on its firefighting efforts.
Beach back in prison
Barry Beach spent 18 months living in relative freedom after spending 29 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Then, on May 14, he received devastating news when a reporter told him that he was likely heading back to prison.
“I don’t understand,” he told the reporter. “I have to make some phone calls.”
In a 4-3 decision, the Montana Supreme Court reinstated Beach’s 100-year prison sentence for the 1979 murder of Kim Nees on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Beach served nearly three decades in prison—the sentence offered no chance of parole—for the murder, before a district court judge in 2011 found sufficient new evidence to warrant another trial. The Montana Attorney General’s Office appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which opined in the May 14 order that the new evidence was “primarily hearsay,” and insufficient to trigger a new court proceeding.
The Supreme Court’s decision inspired shock and anger among Beach’s many supporters. An online petition posted by Montanans for Justice calling upon the state to free Beach garnered more than 15,000 signatures. In September, Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit that works to free the wrongly convicted and a long time Beach champion, filed a clemency petition with the Montana Board of Parole and Pardons that seeks to make Beach immediately eligible for parole. That petition garnered 200 letters of support, including those from Sen. Jon Tester and former Sen. Conrad Burns. If the Board of Pardons approves Beach’s pending petition, he could become immediately eligible for parole.