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Pot paranoia

by Matthew Frank

There's no sign out front, no indication at all that behind this locked strip-mall door near South Reserve Street, there's a room full of marijuana plants and a whiteboard listing the various strains that are sold. The discretion is understandable. Since the first wave of federal raids on Montana medical marijuana businesses in March 2011, 25 people have been indicted on federal drug charges, all facing years in prison. And a year ago, the Montana Legislature passed strict medical marijuana reforms. The industry has been decimated. When it was booming, the state's patient count topped 30,000. Today, it's down to 10,000. The number of medical marijuana providers has dropped from close to 5,000 to about 400. The cops showed up and the crowd dispersed.

But Rob Kinzinger is still here, dispensing medical marijuana to more than 100 patients around Missoula, one of the last providers still in business. The soft-spoken, bald former timber-mill worker knows that this operation could end any day, with the DEA knocking down the door with drawn guns or merely by a state judge upholding parts of the new medical marijuana law that were intended to put providers like Kinzinger out of business but were enjoined last year. Many left the business anyway. Virtually all the storefronts that popped up around Missoula are gone.

"I can't think off the top of my head of anybody who's still around," Kinzinger says.

click to enlarge Last plant standing: Rob Kinzinger - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

That troubles him, because he knows that a lot of marijuana patients—more than 4,000 statewide—don't have providers. Under the new state law, it's harder to obtain a medical marijuana card. Doctors have been hazed away from issuing them. And, as of last month, the fees are higher. "With so many places being shut down and so many people being scared to be in business, there are so many people out there who don't have a provider, who don't have a place to go," Kinzinger says. "Where are they going? To the black market. All [the feds] have done is create a bigger black market, forcing everybody to go back underground. I just don't see how it makes it better."

Kinzinger says he's lost at least 15 percent of his patients.

He's been here awhile, since well before the raids. He thinks he's survived because of his business model. He grows where he dispenses, meaning he's not transporting marijuana around the state. He's the business's only provider, so there's no uncertainty surrounding which plants are associated with which provider and which patients. And, perhaps most importantly, he says, there isn't a blinking neon pot leaf in the window. "I think that's the thing that a lot of people were missing in this whole thing—you don't need a big sign out front, 'Hey, here I am,'" he says. "It's legal and all, but why throw that in anybody's face? It's not about that."

Medical marijuana is still legal in Montana; federally, all marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. But Kinzinger doesn't talk much about that. He focuses on trying to carefully follow the state law, however murky, as the courts figure out how much of the new law is constitutional. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association challenged the new law last year, and it goes before the Montana Supreme Court May 30. Meanwhile, marijuana advocates were successful in placing a referendum of the new state law on the November 2012 ballot.

Kinzinger doesn't have a plan B. If he's shut down, he says, he'll be out looking for another job. "That's why I got into doing this," he continues. After working at the Stimson mill in Bonner for 15 years, "I couldn't find a job to save my life. ... I was running the whole shipping department out there, and it didn't amount to a hill of beans."

He left Stimson with debilitating back pain and prescriptions for narcotics, he says, which he blames for his ballooning to almost 400 pounds. He pulls out his ID, the photo taken a couple years ago: He was huge. But he quit the pills and turned to a plant, and the pounds were shed. His shirt now hangs on him.

"I've had patients come in whom I signed up in wheelchairs, and they walk through the door now," he says. "And it's not because of something that modern medicine has done. It's the marijuana. It reacts with certain diseases in that way. And when you see that, oh man, it just makes what I do so worth it."



Saved from drowning

by Skylar Browning

Long before David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson donned siren-red bathing suits and ran across your television set, the lasting image of a lifeguard included a perfectly bronzed physique, a whistle around the neck or twirled around the fingers, shades and a smear of sunscreen on the beak. They watched over us and we ended up watching just as much of them; real-life neighborhood heroes.

Not much of that iconic imagery fits lifeguards at Currents, Missoula's public indoor swimming pool. There's a whistle and plenty of people to watch—my goodness, is there a lot of screaming, splashing humanity to watch—but that's about it. There's no bronzed physique. No need for shades. Even less need for sunscreen. Instead, these thoroughly trained rescuers, capable of performing CPR on a child or lifting a distressed offensive lineman out of the deep end, are fending off much less glamorous elements than UV rays and hero worship.

There's the chlorine, which smells so strongly that you can feel it turning your hair green from the parking lot. There's the noise, which during busy weekends can ricochet off the pool's walls, creating a sound more piercing than a bushel of fire alarms. And don't even mention the AFRs. (This would be the polite acronym for "Accidental Fecal Release," or poop in the pool.)

All lifeguards have to deal with a certain amount of chaos, chemicals and crap, but most at least get the perks bestowed upon the likes of The Hoff and Pam. It's a little harder to find the rewards for the Currents crew.

"We do get to work outside at Splash for a few months during the summer," offers Chelsea Beckwith, a 22-year-old University of Montana student who has worked as a lifeguard for a year and a half. "That's how we put up with it all winter."

Beckwith is half-joking. She loves her job. She says the chlorine isn't as bad as it used to be. There's even talk of sound-proofing the walls to deal with the noise. And those AFRs don't happen nearly as often as people think—maybe once a month. Plus, Beckwith started at Currents four years ago, working at the front desk, and was eventually promoted to lifeguard. She's one of many on staff who have worked their way up through a system that can groom a summer volunteer into a managerial position.

click to enlarge Not as bad as it sounds: lifeguard Brooke Coty - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"It's hard when you're stuck in here and it's 80 degrees outside and gorgeous," says Beckwith, who's also a certified scuba diver. "But at the same time, when it's 20 degrees outside or 10 below, it's great to wear shorts and a T-shirt and a bathing suit to work."

Of course, there's another aspect to this gig that rises above work conditions. Lifeguards like Beckwith got into the business, especially at an indoor pool in Montana, because they're up to the challenge of being responsible for the well-being of others. Above all, they're there to save people.

Brooke Coty doesn't fit the usual profile of a Currents lifeguard. She's a 39-year-old mother of three who went through all of the requisite aquatics safety training because of a harrowing near-drowning incident with one of her daughters. She wanted to know how to perform a water rescue and, if necessary, resuscitate someone should anything like her daughter's scare ever happen again. Coty had no intention of becoming a full-fledged lifeguard until a part-time position later opened up at Currents, four years ago.

"It can get wild when you have 225 or so people in the pool, at the capacity, that you're in charge of," says Coty. "That's when you remember your training, you realize why we do in-service training every two weeks during the summer and you see exactly why you're needed. I can tell you, we take our jobs very seriously."

Beckwith says rookie guards start at $8.07 an hour. During the fall and winter, Missoula Parks and Rec employs about 17 lifeguards. When Splash! opens in the summer, that number nearly triples to between 40 and 45.

Even with the increased seasonal staff, some aspects of the job don't change. Coty, who has been promoted to the position of Aquatic Program Specialist, still lifeguards during the busy summer months. That means she gets to work outside, swim laps in the 50-meter pool with the sun on her back, twirl her whistle and wear sunscreen. For those few weeks, at least, she embodies that glossed perception of the perfect summer job. A real-life neighborhood hero, free from the confines of an indoor facility.

Except for the occasional "Code Brown." Those are still part of the job.

"All lifeguards have to scrub toilets and handle the accidental releases," she says. "Nobody is above it or beneath it, even the managers."



Shoveling Bambi

by Jessica Mayrer

The temperature warms on a recent fall morning, making the smell on the side of Highway 93 in Victor even more pungent. Flies swarm. The stench rises from what's left of a pregnant doe and her two unborn fawns. They're scattered in pieces along the southbound lanes.

"I think a semi might have got that one," says Montana Department of Transportation crew leader Scott Reesman.

Big rigs, minivans and sedans whiz by as Reesman shovels the dead doe from the road. It's barely 10 a.m. and he's already picked up four animals between Victor and Darby, not including the two fawns.

MDT is charged with hauling road kill from highways. It's a safety hazard, and someone's got to deal with it. In the Bitterroot, that someone is often Reesman. He and his four-man crew pick up roughly eight such animals per week in the Bitterroot Valley. During the fall rut, when bucks prowl for mates, the workload increases.

Reesman isn't phased by the stench. The animals' lifeless eyes don't disturb him, nor does the blood and intestines, the maggots and flies. He's a pragmatist. There are a lot of deer out there. And he's got more work to do.

"It doesn't smell good, but you just kind of block it out," he says. "It's just, like, hurry up and go."

click to enlarge Urban squirrel Frisbee: Somebody’s got to pick it up. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Reesman is a 50-year-old Montana native and father of three. He's worked for MDT for more than three decades. Carcass removal is only one of the tasks he oversees. He's also responsible for ensuring roads are cleared of snow in the winter, bridges are free from logjams in the spring and roads are repaved during summer.

Reesman and his crew try to get to the animals as quickly as possible. But, as there are bridges to seal and waterways to clear, sometimes it takes a couple of days. By then, animals can get pretty ripe. "Flies will be blowing, starting maggots before we even get there overnight," he says. "I had a deer so fat and bloated that it popped and shot warm blood on the side of my face."

Reesman says his favorite part of the job is composting the remains"the funnest part of the roadkill for me."

Reesman is, in fact, a carcass-composting pioneer. In 2005, he helped launch the state's first animal composting facility in Victor. It's a model for roughly a dozen others like it across the state.

The Victor "deer pit," as Reesman calls it, is located just off Highway 93 at mile marker 62.7. Driving toward the pit, one first sees tall dark compost piles. Inching closer, it becomes clear these aren't ordinary compost piles: Stray limbs, hoofs, skulls and hunks of fur are scattered about the site.

In addition to helping launch the deer pit, Reesman also provided his expertise for MDT's carcass composting manual. It's a 12-page primer published in 2007 that spells out the ins and outs of breaking down road kill. The process is simple: Dead deer are placed in a bin with wood chips. Heat and moisture are applied to help grow bacteria, which break down organic materials over time. MDT's composting manual explains, "The MDT process is much like building a sandwich with road kill in the middle that will cook themselves into compost."

Heat kills anything that could harm humans, Reesman says. "I would put this on my garden."

The compost is typically just left at the pit. However, two years ago, MDT launched a pilot project, using the deer compost as fertilizer on a handful of rocky areas along the sides of Bitterroot roads. (The Montana Department of Environmental Quality vetted that project to ensure it was safe.) "At least stuff grew," Reesman says.

DEQ oversees animal composting sites. There's an incentive to create them because they take a significant load off traditional landfills, and there's a lot of roadkill to dispose of. MDT spokeswoman Lori Ryan says oftentimes collisions aren't reported and MDT divisions across the state can use different methodology when tallying numbers, meaning it can be tough to get a handle on the total number of animals in Montana killed by vehicle collisions. According to the "MDT Carcass Database," the department picked up 6,395 animals last year. Mule and whitetail deer accounted for 5,906 of those. Of the remainder, 161 were elk, 62 were antelope and there were six grizzly bears, 32 black bears, 30 moose, six mountain lions and 66 classified as "unknown."

According to the Western Transportation Institute, a Montana State University-based research organization, there are about 1.5 million collisions between vehicles and large mammals nationally each year.

Reesman estimates that MDT retrieves about 650 animals annually on Highway 93 between Lost Trail Pass and Victor. Today, he gets back into his truck after loading a flattened carcass and asks this reporter, "So, do you still think it's a dirty job?"



Forget "West Wing"

by Erika Fredrickson

Government is one of those easily romanticized realms"West Wing," anyone? As it turns out, it can be a thankless job. In the West especially, where counties span large tracts of land, the elected position of county commissioner has historically entailed organizing services among sparse populations with an unreliable budget.

That's one challenge for Ravalli County's five commissioners, who work full-time for between $50,000 and $55,000 a year. There are many others. Hamilton, the county seat and largest town, has only about 4,400 of the people who live in the county. The rest of the 40,300 residents are scattered among loosely linked pockets. The spread means higher costs for roads, power lines, water and other public services. Making that even more difficult is that 73 percent of the county is Forest Service land, which means it's not taxable. Instead, the county gets a good chunk of its funds from state government. Last year, those funds were renewed with a bipartisan bill. But if you have to pass a bill to pay your bills, it's not like getting a steady paycheck. Meanwhile, the county's budget is still being eaten away each year, and it's the county commissioners who have to decide, "Hmmm, who or what will get less money now?"

click to enlarge News_Feature-4.jpg

Let's throw another ingredient into the mix. Ravalli is a politically polarized county. Rural Montana attracts all sorts—from anti-government recluses to back-to-the land hippies and artists—and so the population is an interesting combination of fiscal Republicans, Tea Partiers, libertarians, Democrats and far-left liberals. That means that no matter who's in the county commissioners office, somebody's mad about it.

In fact, most constituents are well to the right of center, and recently, since the rise of last year's kooky state legislature (you know, the one that tried to instill a Code of the West and stamp out medical marijuana against voters' wishes and that came up with all kinds of climate-change-denial and anti-women's health legislation), there's been even more extremism among Ravalli County residents.

What do you have to deal with as a Ravalli County commissioner? For one thing: Parents who refuse vaccinations for their children under all circumstances. Last year, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services reported that only 53.8 percent of children in Ravalli County ages 24 to 35 months are up to date with their immunizations, which compares to the national average of 76 percent. A recent outbreak of whooping cough in Ravalli County might not be a coincidence. The outbreak is statewide, but the 48 cases in Ravalli County give it the highest tally of any county in the state.

Religion and fears of ties to autism are a part of the aversion to vaccines, but so is skepticism of government. That kind of skepticism seeps into several areas of policy, such as the wolf issue. Anti-wolf sentiment is high in the valley, and Little Red Riding Hood reports of wolves' eyes glowing from the darkness of the forest and of wolves killing livestock (and what if they were babies?) have gone from a kind of citizen science to anger and rumbling hysteria. The wolf, which was reintroduced to the West by the feds, of course, has been the scapegoat for low elk numbers, even though other factors—more hunting, an inflated elk population in previous years and development encroaching on elk habitat—contribute to their decline.

County commissioners aren't tasked with these issues, but the anti-government, anti-taxes sentiment does seep into the commissioners' realm. Supporting an education system and health services when a vocal majority doesn't feel they should have to fund it with tax dollars can't be easy.

click to enlarge News_Feature-5.jpg

Here's the rub. Currently, the five Ravalli County commissioners seem to share the anti-wolf and, ironically, anti-government sentiment. They've expressed recently that they'd like a "seat at the table" with Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the way the agency manages wolves, despite the fact that the commissioners aren't trained to make policy decisions based on science. In March, the commission adopted a large predator control policy that calls for larger quotas and longer wolf hunting seasons. Last August, the commission added fuel to the fire by having an "emergency wolf meeting." Also, earlier this year, the commissioners asked for a "seat at the table" with the Forest Service to make policy about forest management—another role that theoretically requires forest science and policy training.

So, is being a county commissioner such a tough role if you, your colleagues and many of your constituents are all of the same mindset?

Maybe not. But if you were a newbie commissioner who understood, say, that wildlife management shouldn't be based on citizen anecdotes, it sure could be.

Dave Smith, a Democrat running for county commissioner this year, could have the difficulty of battling a commission that doesn't have faith in FWP or any other government agency. Smith has already said that no matter what his views on forests and wolves, it's not the role of the commission to decide such matters. It might be a long road ahead.



Not easy being POTUM

by Alex Sakariassen

The past two years have been anything but kind to the University of Montana's administration. If it isn't homeowners renewing concerns about moving the College of Technology to the UM golf course, it's environmentalists highlighting problems with the university's biomass boiler proposal. The Grizzlies debated whether to stay in the Big Sky Conference (they did). Officials discussed expelling Daniel Thew, last fall's football streaker (they didn't).

Then, of course, there's the rape investigation thing. So that sucks.

All of this makes a compelling case for 2012 being pretty much the worst time to be the new guy on campus.

Royce Engstrom took the helm as UM president less than two years ago, on the heels of George Dennison's 20-year reign. Things looked downright peachy back then. Still, Engstrom, who had served as UM's provost since 2007, didn't seem to sugarcoat the path that lay ahead of him when he was a finalist for the presidency. "It certainly is a challenging task," he told the Indy in September 2010, about two weeks before he got the position.

"The University of Montana has the potential to be one of the finest institutions in the country," Engstrom also said, "and I am pleased to be in a position to vie for the leadership."

He wasn't the only one pleased by the prospect. Everyone sang his praises, from faculty to the outgoing president. "I think highly of him," Dennison said at the time. "People do think highly of him. He's done a lot of good work."

Engstrom entered the position with an annual salary of $280,000. (The governor makes just over $108,000 a year.)

Now, public opinion is singing a different tune. Comment boards lit up with harsh criticism following Engstrom's terse announcement March 29 that he'd fired Athletic Director Jim O'Day and football head coach Robin Pflugrad. "This is insanity at its highest level!" a Facebook user wrote on O'Day's Facebook wall the day of the firings. "Engstrom is crazy, he could never have an athletic director who has worked harder or brought as much dignity and professionalism to UM. He screwed up big time on this one and has lost my support completely." Others on local media comment boards weren't quite as polite.

Engstrom still hasn't explained why UM fired O'Day and Pflugrad. But that backlash wasn't the beginning, nor was it the end. Last December, the university hired former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to head an investigation into a disturbing rash of sexual assaults around the campus. Some incidents involved past or present Griz football players; others indicated the use of drugs by alleged rapists.

Throughout the winter, Engstrom supplied some updates on the administration's progress and said changes were in the offing. Officials reviewed the way they handled rape reports. Education about sex assaults was stepped up on campus. Still, the incidents have left UM, and Engstrom, with a black eye that refuses to fade. Even in the midst of the Barz study, Dean of Students Charles Couture was told of a sexual assault perpetrated by an international student. Before the case could be pursued further, the alleged assailant fled the country. And then, last week, UM emails obtained by the Missoulian showed an administration struggling to preserve its image while some were, understandably, demanding more accountability and transparency.

Engstrom was out of the country and unavailable to comment for this story. So we talked to George Dennison, back in Missoula this month after a year of work with the Colorado State University System. Dennison says he left town partly so Engstrom didn't feel in his first years that he had a former president looking over his shoulder.

"When you go into the job, you go in recognizing that it's virtually 24-7," Dennison says. "People don't mind calling any time of the day to raise an issue. You have to take a commitment that this is what I'm here for, and you can try very hard if you'd like to delegate things to other people, but delegation doesn't mean you escape the responsibility, because ultimately it comes back to the president."

click to enlarge Mistakes have been made: University of Montana President Royce Engstrom - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Dennison says the biggest challenge of his presidency came in the spring of 2004, when news broke of a nearly $1 million deficit in UM's athletic budget. Part of the problem was due to an accounting error, but, according to Dennison, the athletic department had overspent itself by $500,000. It was the "most embarrassing moment of my life," Dennison says. "But the only way you deal with difficult situations is to be right out front and simply say, 'Here's what we're doing and here's why.'"

Dennison is somewhat familiar with the position Engstrom's in now regarding sexual assaults. They happened on Dennison's watch as well. "One athlete involved in that way is too many," he says. "Even one student involved in such episodes is too many. ... We had a couple occasions of rape or alleged rape over the course of the years I was president. All you can do is deal with them straightaway."

Engstrom announced the completion of Barz's report on nine alleged sexual assaults on March 22. But the bad news hasn't let up. One female student was attacked on the sidewalk near UM in March. Another student told authorities she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room, but later asked police to drop the case.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was scrutinizing Missoula law enforcement agencies and UM over their responses to rape allegations over the past three years. The investigation has only worsened what was already a public relations nightmare for the university. Whispers of decreased enrollment are sweeping across campus. Donors have pulled financial support, in part due to the O'Day and Pflugrad firings.

Despite all this, Engstrom has still recorded and released his weekly President's Update videos, two-minute missives on the latest news from UM in which he usually wears a smile. He took to the dais March 12 for the 2012 commencement ceremony, offering a warm welcome to friends and family from all over the country and congratulating more than 3,500 graduates on their accomplishments.

"This has been a challenging year in many regards, but it's also been a wonderfully productive year," Engstrom said in his final video update of the semester, May 8. "We've completed quite a number of faculty searches ... and Provost [Perry] Brown tells me that we were successful in recruiting almost all of our top candidates in those searches."

To hear Dennison tell it, those are the real payoffs. He feels a strong sense of achievement looking back on the millions he raised from the private sector for scholarships, programs and new buildings. He takes a "great deal of pride" in his development of the athletic department. As president of the University of Montana—or POTUM—he says, you have to "take the heat when the heat has to be taken." But Dennison says those 20 years were the highlight of his life.

"I look back on those years and feel very good about where we were when I came and where the institution was when I left. That's personal satisfaction."

Will Engstrom be able to say the same thing in two decades?

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