A grand old party 

Disaffected livestock directors make a noisy exit

A spokeswoman from a Republican lobby representing the Montana ranching industry handed out invitation cards to a capacity crowd of stockgrowers gathered at the Sept. 22 Board of Livestock hearing in Helena.

“You are invited to a celebration for Meg Smith and George Hammond for their many years of dedicated service,” read the card, announcing a gathering at the organization’s headquarters about 15 blocks away. The invite was on paperboard, evenly cut and printed with multiple fonts.

This event was planned.

Smith had just announced her resignation from the board moments earlier. Both board representatives—appointees of then-Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, and reappointed by his GOP successor, Judy Martz, in 2003—cited a breakdown in the “democratic process” over the past three years as reasons for their defection. Hammond called the panel dysfunctional in his sign-off speech, seemingly unrelated to the nut-and-bolts agenda item that prompted it. Smith’s announcement came at an equally unexpected moment.

“It wasn’t necessarily related to any issue,” Smith said after the meeting. “The way this board is supposed to be operated is with seven people acting as director of the Department of Livestock. It’s hard to direct when you aren’t being told what’s going on.”

The Board of Livestock is the last major state agency actively directed by a board of citizens as set up under the 1889 Montana Constitution. The defections leave the board entirely in the hands of members appointed by Gov. Brain Schweitzer, clearing the way for the governor’s office to pursue its own agenda on controversial issues, opponents say. Policy on the brucellosis issue constitutes their main concern.

Bill Hedstrom, board chairman, was unavailable to comment in this report, but suggested in an interview with the Great Falls Tribune that Smith and Hammond had become a negative presence on the new board.

Yet, Smith and Hammond’s departure might also contain a hint of tactical timing. After more than 11 years of service, both representatives’ hopes of reappointment when their terms run out in the spring seemed a mutually exclusive development with the reelection of Schweitzer, who leads GOP challenger Roy Brown by as much as 39 points in the polls. The pair probably wanted to go out on their own terms, among friends.

In fact, there were three conspicuous absences in the board’s meeting room: the ranching governor; his ranching Democratic Party chairman, Dennis McDonald; and the state’s Democratic livestock industry lobby, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. Mike Volesky, a senior Schweitzer policy advisor, did come down in time to witness Smith’s announcement.

“Certainly both of these resignations were a surprise,” he says. “It was all orchestrated ahead of time, apparently. We didn’t have the info. We didn’t know it was coming.”

In an official statement, Schweitzer thanked Smith and Hammond for their service on the board, but the administration also challenges the pair’s allegations of a democratic breakdown on the public panel.

“The reasons weren’t real clear,” Volesky says. “They had criticisms of the board, board operations and the board chairman. We don’t see that.”

The departures apparently came as a surprise to the board’s five Schweitzer appointees as well. After the meeting, board member Linda Nielsen approached Smith to ask what exactly prompted the resignation. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Smith responded.

The past year in particular has marked a period of political division between partisan interests both claiming to represent the state’s livestock industry. The conflict began last fall with a disagreement over the governor’s advocacy to split the state into separate brucellosis-management districts under federal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) code. The plan, which was opposed by the Montana Stockgrowers Association and supported by the Montana Cattlemen, fell under partial industry criticism as an effort to quarantine the disease within an easily disregardable part of the state—the area located directly around Yellowstone National Park and its brucellosis-infected elk and bison.

That encounter led to further sparring, which heightened with the second discovery of brucellosis in a Paradise Valley herd in May. That diagnosis officially cost the state its disease-free status earlier this month. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—the high turnout at the meeting where Smith and Hammond announced their resignations was due largely to the latest development in the brucellosis saga.

State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski was on the agenda to present possible short-term plans to regain Montana’s disease-free status. First and probably foremost on his list was Schweitzer’s controversial year-old proposal to apply for split-state status with the USDA. In the meantime, Zaluski recommended to the board increased livestock testing and vaccination requirements in escalating tiers approaching the park boundary. The segue plan was not terribly well received.

“The cost will be borne by the livestock producer,” said Republican state legislator John Jack Ross. “The livestock producer is hanging on by the skin of his teeth and this might put some over the edge.”

The following day, the Board of Livestock approved sending Zaluski’s plan forward to a brief public comment period. A breakdown of the proposed regulations is available on the department website. “I think Marty wants to get this plan out there and in place to get our brucellosis-free status back as quickly as possible,” says agency spokesman Steve Merritt.

Asked why she opted not to stick around and vet the board’s brucellosis actions, Smith replied that she didn’t feel like she had a voice anymore.

However, through resignation, she and Hammond managed to draw a big red circle around the state’s interim brucellosis plan and the GOP-led industry lobbies have chimed in accordingly. The governor’s office seems less than amused.

“You’ve seen the beginning of the end here and hopefully the end,” Volesky says of the ongoing political fight. “This should never have been anything partisan. It’s been calculus for us—it’s been very difficult to understand.”
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