Wrapping up the top stories of 2006

Tester Time

The hands-down winner in the story of the year sweepstakes—and not just because the story seemed to drag on all year—was the hotly contested race for Conrad Burns’ well-worn United States Senate seat. Rarely has the outcome of a Montana political battle been so closely watched by the chattering classes beyond the confines of the Treasure State. Even more rarely has a genuinely populist candidate come from so thoroughly behind to squeak out a last-minute victory over an entrenched incumbent. And never, we’re willing to bet, has the international press had so many occasions to employ the phrase “organic farmer from Big Sandy.”

But then Tester vs. Burns wasn’t just any race. For one thing, it almost didn’t happen at all. It’s hard to remember now, but back in the spring, State Auditor John Morrison’s lead in the Democratic primary seemed almost insurmountable. Morrison had the name recognition, the support of the Democratic establishment and the lion’s share of the campaign cash. Unfortunately for Morrison, the frontrunner also had a skeleton in his closet in the form of a past infidelity that may or may not have influenced his office’s handling of a fraud case. We reported the story in our April 20 issue, but Morrison’s mishandling of the suspicion, as much as any assumption about his culpability, seemed to sink his ship before it left the harbor (or maybe it was those uncreased “work” gloves he showed off in his television ads that doomed him), and Tester routed his opponent in the June primary.

That’s when the real work began, and happily for Tester, Burns seemed intent on doing much of the heavy lifting himself, pretending past the point of plausibility that the Jack Abramoff scandal had no legs and repeatedly shoehorning his foot into his mouth with insults aimed at firefighters, poorly timed naps, and ill-considered insinuations about bomb-throwing taxi drivers. By the time November rolled around, it seemed unlikely that even the nice little Guatemalan man hired to paint Burns’ Virginia home would have voted for him, even if he could.

Still, it turned out to be a nail-biter to the very end, and with five Democrat-targeted Senate seats nationwide falling dreamlike into place before Montana’s ballots were tallied, Tester was at last announced the winner by a hair, checking the final box in the Dems’ midterm wish list and handing control of the Senate to the once-hapless challengers. A more picture-perfect finish we’ll probably never see.

Hello, Mizzoooooooola

Considering the outrageously expensive ticket prices, suffocating barrage of pre-show hype and persistently unsettling public displays of grownup giddiness, it seemed there was absolutely no way the Rolling Stones’ Wednesday, Oct. 4, concert at Washington-Grizzly Stadium could live up to expectations. The prevailing cautionary refrain: I’m not really going for the show; I just want to see the scene.

Then a funny thing happened: the stadium lights went out, Keith Richards’ first few chords of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” chewed through the surprisingly warm evening air, and the Stones began ripping through a two-hour-plus show that utterly blew 21,000-plus concertgoers away. Even backyard partiers in the Rattlesnake reported hearing every note. The concert was more than the six-story stage and the fireworks and the high-definition jumbo screen—it actually sounded good. Perhaps it was the extra juice of playing in Montana for the first time (“I went out and shot an elk today—but I put it back, I put it back,” Mick confessed), or the perfect weather, or the impressively raucous crowd (including the several hundred on Mount Sentinel), or a serendipitous combination of all of the above (the rain started just as the last song ended), but the result felt like a once-in-a-lifetime—not just a best-of-’06—concert experience.

Those Schweitzer Boys

Gov. Brian Schweitzer continued to grab the attention of pundits and news outlets across the country two years into his first term in office.

Schweitzer’s national profile was elevated to new heights in 2006 thanks in part to lengthy feature stories in major newspapers including The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, examining the Guv’s populist appeal (his approval rating hovers around 70 percent) and his plan to turn Montana’s vast coal tracts into synthetic fuel.

In February, Lesley Stahl introduced a national audience to Montana’s “Coal Cowboy” in a “60 Minutes” segment on CBS. A few weeks later, Schweitzer pitched his energy plan to George Stephanopou-los in a helicopter cruising above the snowcapped peaks of Glacier National Park on ABC’s Sunday morning talk show “This Week.”

In October the governor announced an initial agreement to build one of the nation’s first coal-to-liquids facilities on the site of the Bull Mountain Coal mine outside of Roundup, then promptly embarked on a whirlwind Washington D.C. tour where he headlined a National Press Club luncheon with a speech on his “Vision for America’s Energy Future” and appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” where he again promoted his plan for clean coal production.

But later that month it was the governor’s brother, Walter, who made at least one headline in an Oct. 19 Independent cover story examining the first brother’s role in the state capitol. The Lee Newspapers state bureau followed up almost two months later with a story that ran in four of the state’s largest daily newspapers. In that story, Walter Schweitzer described his role as “volunteer intern” in the governor’s office.

Pepperball Contretemps

With Sheriff Mike McMeekin up for re-election in November, the last thing his administration needed was the unauthorized July revelation that a mentally challenged woman in county lockup on a misdemeanor charge had been subjected to a close-range barrage of gun-fired pepperball capsules and subsequently strapped down in a restraint chair for 45 minutes before being decontaminated. The questionable assault was also the last thing Detention Officer Mike Burch wanted on his conscience, so when he heard about the events of July 2, he pulled up a copy of the damning incident report and leaked it to a reporter at the Missoulian. A second source leaked a copy to the Independent. Both papers dedicated substantial coverage to the unseemly assault. The sheriff was so concerned about the public suggestion of guard-on-inmate abuse that he immediately exonerated the shooter and fired Burch—for unauthorized disclosure of confidential criminal justice information, no less—just as soon as he had legal cover.

The never-publicly-named inmate was last known to be under supervision in the state facility at Warm Springs. McMeekin cruised to re-election by a comfortable margin in November. And both the Independent and the Missoulian continue to seek access to Detention Center videotapes of the incident. We’ll keep you posted.

Left Off the Dial

If anything excited the collective progressive imagination of radio-listening Missoulians like the summer 2005 launch of KNS 105.9 FM, the local affiliate of the left-leaning Air America network, it was the untimely late-February 2006 demise of same. Conspiracy theorists—and the station attracted its fair share—pointed to the then-recent financial takeover of KNS and sister stations KKVU and The Trail by Salt Lake City-based (and so presumably Mormon; thus presumably conservative) Simmons Media Group. And the timing certainly was suspicious: Air America figurehead Al Franken had come to Missoula only the week before to brag to a packed Missoula Children’s Theatre crowd that KNS had just pulled a 3.6 in a fall ratings survey, topping conservative talk stalwart Rush Limbaugh. That made it more than a little difficult to swallow the official party line that KNS was bleeding money. Apparently KNS had the listeners; the station’s salespeople just couldn’t figure out how to translate all those ears into ad revenue.

The off-air announcement was followed by much sound and fury—and an on-air rallying cry from Franken—about transplanting Air America to a new frequency and relaunching with a more capable sales staff. Alas, those rumblings turned out to be so much static, and after a period of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, aggrieved Missoula liberals dialed their tuners back to government- and listener-subsidized public radio, where they’re asked to put their money where their mouths are only once a year.

Barry Beach Speaks

For more than half his life, Barry Beach has sought his release from prison, where he’s serving a 100-year sentence for a murder he and many others say he didn’t commit. In October—more than 22 years into his sentence—Beach’s fight went public when the Independent reported on Beach’s attempts to secure clemency from Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

In 1984, a jury convicted Beach of killing his Poplar classmate and neighbor, 18-year-old Kim Nees, and dumping her body in the Poplar River. Despite a plethora of physical evidence that failed to tie Beach to the scene of the crime, Beach was convicted, largely on the basis of a confession he made to Louisiana detectives, whom Beach claims coerced a false admission of guilt. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, then working in the Attorney General’s office, prosecuted Beach’s case, successfully using a report from since-discredited forensic scientist Arnold Melnikoff to place Beach at the scene.

Six years ago, Centurion Ministries, a national nonprofit that works to free wrongly convicted inmates, took on Beach’s case. Since then, Centurion investigators have unearthed new evidence supporting Beach’s claim of innocence, and new sources who say a group of Poplar girls has gotten away with the gruesome crime for decades.

In late February, Beach will finally get his first opportunity to take his case before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, which will hold a public hearing at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge to consider his case. In the audience will be “Dateline NBC,” which recently began researching Beach’s case for an upcoming television report.

Attorney Peter Camiel says Beach’s long-overdue opportunity can’t come soon enough: “Since the day [Beach] was sentenced, this is the first time he’s had a chance to publicly argue both his innocence and the fact that he ought to be out.”

Less Meth, Please

The face of Montana’s media market changed markedly with the September 2005 onset of the Montana Meth Project (MMP), which became the state’s largest advertiser overnight and began peppering Montana’s airwaves, billboards and newspapers with shock-and-awe ads aiming to rub teen faces in the horrific effects of methamphetamine.

Since then, the project funded by billionaire Tom Siebel to the tune of $6 million a year has raked in accolades from local officials and the White House Drug Czar, and states including Arizona are working to import the campaign.

In August, the Independent reported on several largely ignored aspects of MMP’s approach. While MMP routinely cites studies suggesting that 70–90 percent of Montana teens see its ads at least three times a week, its own survey data found some less-than-glowing results of that exposure: a statistically significant increase in the number of teens who don’t think it’s risky to try meth, and a large number who say the ads exaggerate meth’s risks.

Montana drug prevention experts like Most of Us Institute Director Jeff Linkenbach characterized MMP’s approach as “health terrorism” that doesn’t work. “Decades of research have demonstrated again and again that scare tactics don’t work and often backfire,” he says.

Nevertheless, politicians continue to hail MMP as a model. In November, when Siebel launched a capital campaign to make MMP self-sufficient, Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed a budget including $1 million for a media campaign “such as the Montana Meth Project,” and Sen. Max Baucus has pledged to secure federal funding to keep the campaign front and center. Also in November, Billings Gazette Publisher and Lee Enterprises Vice President Michael Gulledge took over as MMP chairman.

MMP Director Peg Shea says a third round of ads will launch in early 2007. As those ads and an earnest push for public funding hit the streets, expect more Montanans to start wondering just how hooked on MMP they really are.

EPA Comes Clean on Libby

The year just past is likely to be remembered as the year that changed the course of the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup of Libby.

For decades, W.R. Grace & Co. and predecessor mining companies subjected Libby to massive asbestos contamination through the operation of a nearby vermiculite mine. In 1999, after a series of stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer exposed the problem, the EPA began cleanup of the Superfund site. In April, the Independent reported that EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigator Cory Rumple was interviewing Libby residents about the cleanup. At that time, the OIG would neither confirm nor deny the existence of Rumple’s investigation. In June, the OIG denied the paper’s request for a copy of Rumple’s report. The Independent appealed that decision.

Meanwhile, in July, Dr. Gerry Henningsen, Gordon Sullivan, Clinton Maynard and Abe Troyer revealed details about a conversation they’d had with Rumple. They said Rumple confirmed that the EPA had not adequately studied the type of asbestos particular to Libby, could not know how safe the town was after seven years and $110 million of work, and had distributed unscientific and potentially dangerous information to Libby residents regarding the handling of asbestos-containing vermiculite.

The men believed that their claims were proved in Rumple’s report. But in early August the OIG denied the Independent’s appeal of the agency’s original denial.

Then, in late August, Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to the OIG asking it to look into exactly the issues raised by Henningsen, Sullivan, Maynard and Troyer.

Finally, in mid-December, the OIG announced that it essentially concurred with the four men’s assertions: that the EPA did not know how effective its cleanup was because it hadn’t established the threat posed by Libby’s asbestos, and that the EPA had produced and distributed misleading information on the handling of vermiculite.

In December, the EPA announced it would study Libby’s asbestos, and review literature given to the community for accuracy.

Meanwhile, the trial in a federal case charging that W.R. Grace and seven of its current and former executives knew of, but hid, the health implications of asbestos contamination in Libby has been postponed until an as yet unscheduled date in 2007. We Built This City After years of planning, fundraising and finger-crossing, 2006 turned out to be the year of ribbon cutting as Missoulians witnessed the opening of four of the city’s biggest public works projects in recent memory.

In March, kayakers (and the occasional yahoo on an inner tube) began playing in the long-awaited Brennan’s Wave near the Caras Park lookout deck over the Clark Fork’s north bank, just below the Higgins Avenue bridge. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the Missoula Whitewater Association, engineers sculpted the riverbed into a hydraulic roller coaster, replacing the unsightly and dangerous remnants of a crumbling irrigation weir with two standing waves.

September saw a trio of long-awaited openings, beginning with the official unveiling of the newly renovated Missoula Art Museum. The full restoration of the 100-year-old Carnegie Library Building on Pattee Street not only preserved the building’s historic character but also brought the museum into the 21st century with modern amenities and a high-tech expansion. Contractors broke ground on the $4.5-million renovation in January 2005, and after 20 months of construction the new-and-improved MAM opened its doors Sept. 15.

The very next day McCormick Park hosted the first of two grand openings that month with the unveiling of Currents, the $4.9-million indoor aquatics center and crown jewel of Missoula’s voter-approved $12.2-million citywide aquatics project. The 40,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility opened its doors three months after Currents’ outdoor counterpart, Splash Montana, opened in Playfair Park.

McCormick’s second September inauguration came thanks to the efforts of another group of overachieving action-sports enthusiasts from the Missoula Skatepark Association, along with the support of local businesses, rockers Pearl Jam and skateboarding legend Tony “Birdman” Hawk. Local shredders now have a 15,000-square-foot skatepark in McCormick Park to call their own. Hawk and his band of touring celebrities broke the new park in at a Sept. 24 grand opening demo that drew more than 8,000 spectators.

Energy for Sale

As the consequences of utility deregulation set in over the last decade, delivering increased costs and decreased stability, Montanans have become accustomed to an ever-shifting power landscape.

Still, many were surprised when NorthWestern Energy announced in April that it had been offered $2.2 billion—exactly double what NorthWestern paid for the three-state utility four years ago—to sell the company to Babcock & Brown Infrastructure (BBI), a division of Australia’s second-largest investment bank. The Aussie offer put an end to an effort by Montana Public Power Inc., which had sought to assume local, publicly funded control of the utility that serves 300,000-plus Montana customers.

Since April, NorthWestern has secured required approval for the deal from three of four regulating bodies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and officials in South Dakota and Nebraska. Now Montana regulators are the last remaining hurdle for NorthWestern’s proposed sale, and the Montana Public Service Commission has been busy evaluating the ins and outs of the deal. The PSC tentatively plans to hold public hearings in March 2007 before rendering its decision.

PSC commissioners say their prime concern is ensuring that Montana consumers won’t be harmed by the deal. And as the commission—still dominated by Democrats due to Ken Toole’s tight victory in November’s election—gets down to business this spring, you can bet that Montanans will be watching.

Retroactive Freedoms

University of Montana journalism professor Clem Work helped right a historic Montana wrong with his October 2005 book Darkest Before Dawn, which spurred the May 2006 pardons of 77 citizens convicted under Montana’s early-century sedition law. In the book, Work uncovered the stories of 40 men and women who were imprisoned in 1918 and 1919—along with 37 others convicted but never jailed—for uttering criticisms of U.S. involvement in World War I. After reading Work’s book, a group of law and journalism students led by UM law professor Jeff Renz took on the seditionists’ cause and worked to secure their posthumous pardons from Gov. Brian Schweitzer. And at a May 2006 ceremony in Helena, nearly 50 descendents of the convicted joined Work, the students and Schweitzer, who signed a Proclamation of Pardon reaffirming Montanans’ right to free speech and clearing the names of those who were punished for exercising it.

March of the Wal-Marts

Despite initial difficulties, it was largely a good year for Wal-Mart in Western Montana.

In October 2005, Wal-Mart submitted plans to build a 156,000-square-foot Supercenter in Polson, to replace the 52,000-square-foot Wal-Mart that’s already there. To fight the proposed Supercenter, some Polson residents formed the nonprofit group Lake County First.

Apparently sensing the direction of the wind, the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce in January drafted an ordinance to limit new retail spaces in Ravalli County to 60,000 square feet. It wasn’t until late March that Wal-Mart proposed a Supercenter in the Bitterroot.

In April, Ravalli County enacted the ordinance, but Citizens for Economic Opportunity, a new Bitterroot group opposed to the cap—and funded almost wholly by Wal-Mart—got enough signatures on a petition to put the ordinance to a public vote. In late June the Polson City Council approved Wal-Mart’s proposed Super- center. Lake County First has since filed suit against the city, alleging an illegal zoning change to accommodate Wal-Mart. The suit, filed in Lake County District Court, is still in its preliminary stages. Ravalli County voters struck down the big box-limiting ordinance in November by a margin of about 500 votes. Bitterroot resident Russ Lawrence, a vocal opponent of the Supercenter, says the Bitterroot Good Neigh-bors Coalition, of which he is a member, plans to continue fighting Wal-Mart in 2007 over issues with its building site. Foreign Aid Montana, while hardly a national flashpoint for current debates about immigration and foreign labor, found this year that the state isn’t immune from the issue, either. Just before the turn of the year, in December 2005, the Independent began reporting on local Immigration and Customs Enforce-ment (ICE) arrests in Flathead County.

ICE had seen an increasing influx of illegal immigrants in the area, almost all of whom were working construction. The arrests, all at construction sites, continued into 2006. According to a Flathead ICE official, employers of the arrested immigrants said they’d turned to illegal labor because they couldn’t find enough legal labor in the Flathead valley, which is experiencing one of the tightest labor markets in its history.

In the meantime, the U.S. Congress tried to hammer out an immigration bill. To promote the House version, U.S. Sen. Denny Rehberg hosted a Hamilton field hearing on the issue.

While the rest of the country debated guest worker programs and amnesty, some Flathead valley businesses employed legal workers through a temporary work visa program.

In July, the Independent reported on local businesses including Grouse Mountain Lodge and Marcus Foods that hired temporary workers from Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. This winter, Big Mountain imported workers from South America and South Africa to help address its own labor shortage.

By the end of summer, with elections looming, hope for real immigration reform wilted on the vine, although President George W. Bush signed a mostly unfunded bill to build 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.

Tearing Down the Dam

While 2005 was marked by the historic decision to remove the Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River above Missoula, along with tons of toxic sediment built up behind it, 2006 was marked by small but critical steps toward accomplishing that goal. In April, the 98-year-old powerhouse atop the dam was disconnected from the grid and shut down. Then workers drained the Milltown reservoir and commenced complicated preparations like bridge buttressing and bypass channel construction, all aimed at removal of the spillway in the fall of 2008, says Russ Forba, project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. Forba says work in 2006 may have gone slower than hoped, particularly due to an October construction malfunction that landed an excavator in the river, but given the unprecedented scope of the project, he says, such unforeseen challenges are hardly surprising.

Big-time B-ball

During the course of a sports season, coaches and fans alike look for signs to measure just how good their team might turn out to be when the playoffs arrive. For the 2005–2006 UM men’s basketball team, one such sign came early in the schedule, and delivered an emphatic message: The Griz dominated traditional Pac-10 power Stanford in Dahlberg Arena 88–69, leading from start to finish in front of a standing-room-only hometown crowd.

That win last Decem-ber was just the first sign that coach Larry Krys-tkowiak’s team was in for a special season, and not once did the squad disappoint. Beating Montana State twice: check. Big Sky tournament championship and NCAA Tournament bid: check. The school’s first-ever March Madness first-round victory: check. Led by the on-court moxie of senior guards Kevin Criswell and Virgil Matthews, buttressed by the still-rising talent of young forwards Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet, and guided by the passion of Krystkowiak and his staff, the Griz became national media darlings, displaying the sort of intelligent, gritty and unselfish style that makes us locals proud.

The only downside to the team’s historic run was the fact that it was almost impossible for outsiders not to notice, and notice they did: Krystkowiak left over the summer to continue his coaching ascent as an assistant with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, and his assistant, Brad Huse, hired on as the new head coach at MSU. The cupboard isn’t exactly bare as alum and last year’s assistant coach Wayne Tinkle takes over as this year’s head coach—and Strait and Hasquet look as good as ever—but so far there’s been no sign that the team will duplicate last year’s unprecedented success. That run was one for the record books.

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