The news in review 

Following up on 2004's big stories

“Intelligent Design” in the wings
Months after Darby voters ousted school board members who sought to change the schools’ science curricula to teach Intelligent Design theories alongside evolution (see “What would Jesus teach,” Feb. 26, 2004), Rod Miner, who led a group opposed to the change, reports that “all is quiet in Darby at the moment.”

The May election “put the whole thing temporarily to rest,” says Miner, coordinator of Ravalli County Citizens for Science. And over the summer, the new board made the rejection of objective origins policy official by voting it down 3-2. They also hired a new superintendent, Bruce Wallace, after the last one resigned over differences with the pro-objective origins camp. Still unresolved is a lawsuit the Ravalli Republic filed over a series of closed meetings the board held during the squabble.

Statewide, the Intelligent Design debate is about to heat up as Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, plans to introduce a bill to “allow teaching competing theories of origin” in the public schools. (JM)

Onward, Swifties
Two months after U.S. voters did not elect John Kerry president, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Treasurer and Missoulian Wey Symmes (see “Fog of War,” Sept. 2, 2004) says the Swift Vets are tired. Their campaign to prevent Kerry from becoming Commander in Chief was, he says, “the most exhausting, mentally draining thing I’ve done in a long time.” But that doesn’t mean the Swift Vets are closing up shop. While Symmes says the group “doesn’t see any real need to do anything right now,” founder and retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffman and Unfit for Command author John O’Neill still host phone conferences with the initial steering committee on a regular basis and have their eyes on two issues in the future: veterans’ advocacy, to assure no veterans are treated as they were when they returned from Vietnam, and bias in the mainstream media. But, says Symmes, “we don’t want to rehash the election. We’re not interested in going after John Kerry anymore.” (RT)

The river wilder
It’s been a long time coming, but Milltown’s catastrophe-in-waiting is finally going the way of the dodo. In mid-December, the Environmental Protection Agency signed the final documents assuring the removal of the notoriously decrepit Milltown Dam, and the millions of cubic yards of toxic sludge piled up behind it will soon be laid to rest near Opportunity. Hooray for the Clark Fork; good luck to Opportunity. While the challenges of diverting the Clark Fork River during years of cleanup remain, downstreamers from East Missoula to the Pacific Ocean will have a cleaner river on which to live—and play. (CH)

Patriots rebel
Nationally, 363 cities and towns and four U.S. states have passed resolutions expressing either concern or outright disapproval of several provisions contained within the USA PATRIOT ACT that threaten civil liberties protected under the Bill of Rights. In 2004, Lewis and Clark County, Eureka, Whitefish and Helena joined 2003 resolution-passers Missoula, Dillon, Beaverhead County and Bozeman in affirming citizens’ civil liberties in response to the act. The most recent signer is Helena, whose City Council narrowly approved a resolution on a 3-2 vote Monday, Dec. 6. Congress will consider whether parts of the act should be extended in 2005. “Opposition to the act doesn’t follow party lines,” Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Ed Tinsley told the Independent (see “Freedom Fighters 2004: The True Patriots,” July 1, 2004). “You’ve got conservative counties like Dillon and Eureka and those considered more liberal like Missoula and Bozeman both saying the same thing, that this has gone too far and it was done in haste after 9/11.” (MKF)

Slow justice in Libby
It’s been a big year for Libby. In late October, Maryland-based W.R. Grace—the vermiculite mining company responsible for more than 200 asbestos-related deaths in the community so far—announced that it had been named the subject of a grand jury investigation for violations of federal environmental laws. In mid-December, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the state had a duty to warn miners about asbestos dangers. Whether that duty was fulfilled is a matter likely to be explored in District Court next year. “It’s been a long five years, but things have a way of working out,” according to asbestos victims advocate Gayla Benefield (see “Unsanctioned sickness,” Sept. 9 and “Grand jury looks at Grace,” Nov. 11, 2004). On the downside for advocates such as Benefield, the federal government granted the Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby Project Manager Jim Christensen only $17 million of the $21 million he had requested for Libby asbestos cleanup in the current fiscal year, meaning ongoing asbestos clean-up will not proceed as fast as was hoped in the coming year. (MKF)

Moses lives! (in Kalispell)
A group of Flathead citizens contacted the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in March, concerned that a large stone monument displaying the Ten Commandments near the Kalispell courthouse’s entryway was akin to county endorsement of religion—a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution (see “Holy Moses!,” April 1, 2004). “The people who founded our country founded it on the word of God,” Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall said in a radio call-in show at the time. “I’d like to see us set a precedent in the whole country by not removing the Ten Commandments.” And so they haven’t. Instead, visitors to Flathead County Court will find the monument beneath an “Evolution of Law” placard and flanked by several other documents: The U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the Northwest Ordinance and the Declaration of Independence. Only the Ten Commandments gets carved in stone and a spotlight, however, so even night visitors can be reminded not to kill, steal or “covet thy neighbor’s manservant.” Whoever originally anonymously complained to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State may have been appeased—or afraid to publicly sign their name to a lawsuit—because no litigation is pending. (MKF)

Changes at Community
Last spring, Community Medical Center’s administrators described some Emergency Department staffing changes as a “restructuring.” A number of nurses, however, simply called it an illegal layoff. Over the course of the summer, the hospital and the nurses’ union went through a grievance process. “It technically is not settled yet,” says Jan Perry, RN, vice president for Patient Care Services at Community Medical Center. The hospital and the Montana Nurses’ Association will enter arbitration this spring. In the meantime, Perry says that both patient and employee surveys show increased levels of satisfaction since the staffing changes. (KS)

Growing pains
A new City Council started work last January and made it clear that it would put the brakes on the type of growth the former Council had encouraged. Council placed on hold the development of denser neighborhoods—Planned Neighborhood Clusters (PNC)—that allow younger families or single folks to afford to buy homes. Council members had planned to revise the controversial PNC policy during the six-month hold, which will expire in mid-January, but Ward 3’s Stacy Rye believes that Council has yet to guide the city’s growth by setting policy. “Instead of setting…policies, we’re choosing to micromanage each project that comes along,” says Rye. The Council—instead of city and county staff—now reviews each boundary line adjustment request, which can be a preliminary step to building, for instance, a “mother-in-law suite.” “In essence, we still don’t have [zoning] policies to back up how we want to grow,” Rye says. (KS)

Building Ebola city
This fall, a U.S. district judge gave the National Institutes of Health a green light to proceed with an expansion of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton. Three local groups concerned about adequate public involvement during the lab’s decision-making process and potential impacts of the proposed Biosafety Level 4 expansion had earlier filed a lawsuit, since settled by mediation. Jim Olsen, a member of Coalition for a Safe Lab, a plaintiff in the suit, says all the groups’ members continue to watchdog the lab. The new 105,000-square-foot facility will include roughly 7,000 square feet of BSL-4 laboratory research space, where scientists will research the world’s deadliest pathogens. RML has begun construction. The Rocky Mountain Laboratories Community Liaison Group, which updates the public, continues to meet. (KS)

Right to know
In March, the Havre Daily News (HDN), along with nine other news organizations, sued the city of Havre and its chiefs of police after the police department delivered a partially redacted initial incident report—presumably a public document—to an HDN reporter. The case is still pending. John Shontz, with J.M. Shontz & Associates, the firm representing the plaintiffs in the suit, says that a portion of the case was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court earlier in December. Eventually, he believes it’s likely the entire case will end up before the Supreme Court. The Montana Constitution protects the public’s right to know, but state agencies and bureaucrats don’t always honor the public’s right to access public records. Last year, a Freedom of Information Act audit showed that “sheriffs’ offices were the most flagrant violators of open records laws,” according to The Montana FOI Hotline NewsFlash. (KS)

Bison Range settlement
After years of wrangling and a down-to-the-wire series of public comment periods, officials with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes finally signed an agreement on the joint management of Moiese’s National Bison Range Dec. 15. Advocates of the controversial agreement, which gives the tribes an official hand in the day-to-day operations of the venerable National Wildlife Refuge, lauded a new era of cooperation between the federal government and the tribes. Critics continued to suspect a precedent-setting ulterior motive in lessening federal control over the refuge. Twenty-three National Wildlife Refuge managers from around the country had previously signed a petition calling the agreement “unworkable.” (BT)

Updates by Chad Harder, Mike Keefe-Feldman, Jessie McQuillan, Keila Szpaller, Robin Troy and Brad Tyer.

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