Ochenski: Cooked goose 

Stick a fork in Martz’s administration—It’s done

Governor Martz is making so many mistakes these days that even the mainstream editorial writers are starting to get the picture. If the polls are right, her approval rating is hovering somewhere around 28 percent—and likely to drop further as new scandals, investigations, and a bad case of “foot in mouth disease” continue. Can it get much worse? Unfortunately, it can and likely will. The question now is, “When will Judy realize she has completely lost whatever credibility and effectiveness she may have had, and decide to hang up the skates and resign?”

Last week, state educators were up in arms when Martz told a home-schoolers’ convention: “It shouldn’t take $5,000 to $7,000 to educate a child” in public schools, since it only costs $300 to do it at home. Like a mass brawl at a hockey game, this brought literally everyone involved with education off the benches and onto the editorial pages. Where did the Gov get her numbers? Did she take into account the fact that schools have to pay for heating, lighting and, most importantly, teachers? Apparently not. Then she added, “And it surely doesn’t take a village to raise one,” an obvious diss of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes A Village. Can you imagine a debate on education between Hillary and Judy? It would be funny if it weren’t so pitiful.

Then there was Martz’s recent address to Christian high school graduates. According to the AP article, the governor told the 30 students that “she considers herself more a Christian than a politician and could not separate church and state in her heart.” She went on to add that “Very few schools in Montana have a graduating class that knows the importance of God.” It is no secret that Martz is a heavy-duty Christian, but apparently someone failed to inform the governor that mixing religion with public education is not an option. In a country founded on the principle of religious freedom, it is the right of every citizen (and student) to believe in whatever deities suit their fancy—or to believe in none. Since the governor swore an oath to uphold Montana’s Constitution, perhaps she should take the time to read it. In Article X, Sec. 7, she will find: “No sectarian tenets shall be advocated in any public educational institution in the state.” What’s so bad about mixing religion and government? Does the word Taliban ring a bell?

Over the weekend, stories about governor’s office e-mails hit the papers. Immediately following former policy advisor Shane Hedge’s fatal crash, Mike Foster, then head of the Labor Department and now “chief policy advisor,” wrote that “The obvious factor likely causing the accident is trying to be hush-hushed…” The “factor” Foster referred to was the fact that Hedges was drunk when the fatal accident occurred and the governor’s office was trying to keep that information from becoming public. When Foster found out the governor’s chief of staff, Ed Bartlett, had talked to reporters about the incident, he wrote: “Ed told Karl [Lieutenant Governor Ohs] and me he has already spilled his guts to the press about what he witnessed last night at Marysville regarding who was there and who was driving, etc. GREAT!! All Karl and I could do was look at each other.”

Meanwhile Hedges, who pleaded guilty to the drunk driving accident, apparently continued to work for the governor while serving his sentence in a prerelease center. An e-mail from Hedges indicates he re-wrote her speech last winter to include an additional 21 “applause lines” so the claques in the audience would know when to clap. Hedges reminded the staff that the speech was “a strategic production” and that he “tripled the number of applause lines because it doesn’t matter whether the lines deserve applause, what matters is the story saying her 30-minute address was interrupted 20 times by applause.” In other words, fake applause for fake content…just what Montana needs in a governor.

The e-mails also confirm that the governor’s office was using state resources for political fundraising. A letter signed by Martz inviting supporters to a Republican fundraiser in Palm Springs was sent to Mike Foster by Hedges nearly three months after his resignation. Foster then used the state e-mail system to send the message to Betti Hill, the governor’s special projects director. Hill then used the state e-mail system to organize the event and arrange transportation for guests, as well as to report back to Hedges and Martz’s campaign treasurer—all of which is blatantly against state law. The entire matter is being investigated by the Justice Department and, given the seemingly undeniable evidence, it looks like more trouble ahead for Martz and her scofflaw crew.

This week, Gov. Martz is right in the middle of an investigation to determine whether her sweetheart deal with ARCO to purchase 80 acres of land adjoining her Butte-area property for less than half of what ARCO paid for it violates state ethics laws. While Martz maintains she has “done nothing dishonest,” her position as trustee for the state on the Clark Fork Superfund cleanup virtually ensures that ARCO’s influence will be questioned on any decision she makes on the Clark Fork, the Milltown Dam removal, or the state’s natural resource damage lawsuit. No matter what happens with the ethics charge, it is guaranteed that there will be a call for Martz to remove herself from weighing in on these crucial decisions because of the appearance of conflict of interest.

Given the state’s economic, education, and budget crises, now is when we really need a credible and effective leader in the top post. Instead, we have a weekly series of catastrophes, scandals, and gaffes all centered on or emanating from the governor’s office. For the good of the state, perhaps the best thing Martz could do is to simply declare the governor’s office a disaster area, clear the decks, and let someone else take a shot at it. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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