Worst of Missoula 1999 

The most egregious trends, tribulations and trip-ups in the Garden City

Leave it to us to go plumbing Missoula's murky depths, plunging its nasty hollows. Sorry. We just have to. When you're as into a town as we are-when you take it upon yourself to cover a city as fast-moving and close-knit as Missoula-you gotta take the bad with the good. It's only fair, right? So it's in that spirit that we'd like to introduce "The Worst of Missoula," a brief catalog of some of the more egregious trends, tribulations and trip-ups that we've seen taking place in our town. You've probably noticed them, too. Some of the issues we've taken to task are sweeping tendencies. Others are isolated incidents. Some are honest mistakes. Others are indefensible positions. But a pattern obtains among all of them: They each make Missoula a slightly less perfect place than we'd like it to be, and we're more protective of this town than anyone we know. So keep in mind, we're doing this because we notice, and we care. Think of it as tough love.

Worst Trend in Missoula Politics: The Growing Lack of Civility

No one at the Independent would ever presume to challenge the rights of Missoula's citizenry to play an active role in protecting themselves, their families, property, and pets from the unwanted assaults of noise, traffic, litter, odors, bright lights, noxious pepperoni fumes, tasteless signage, rampant drunkenness, public urination, shoddy parking etiquette, stray foul balls, half-eaten calzones or the plaintive moan of rusty bleachers during the seventh inning stretch. After all, enjoyment of peace and quiet lie at the very heart of the American Dream.

That said, however, there comes a point when the public airing of dissent and disgruntlement crosses the line from legitimate civic discourse into the realm of childish name-calling and downright vindictive-and illegal-behavior. Such was the case on at least two instances this year, when local entrepreneurs trying to introduce new businesses into their community were met with resistance more appropriate for the arrival of a triple-X movie theater, or a mass crematory for highway roadkill.

Zoning, schmoning: Why did the Freddy's debate get so ugly?

In the case of Pizza Schmizza, former University-area residents Tom and Maya Frost sought permission from the Missoula City Council to rezone property to allow a pizza restaurant and bakery in the former Freddy's Feed and Read site at 1221 Helen. The Frosts, who were new residents to Missoula, had a long and respectable history of civic activism. From the project's earliest stages, they solicited input and comments from the neighborhood, invested significant time and money addressing the concerns of the building's immediate neighbors, and bent over backwards to make the restaurant a compatible addition to the University area.

However, this didn't stop someone from targeting the Frosts and their three school-aged children with repeated written and verbal death threats. In the end, after organized opposition from a small but vocal minority of University area homeowners, the rezoning was rejected (over the recommendation of the city's planning staff and the endorsement of the Neighborhood Council of the University Area) and the Frosts eventually sold their home and moved away.

In the case of the Osprey baseball stadium, the day after the press reported the name of Wes Spiker as one of five leaders of Play Ball Missoula (the business group trying to find a permanent home for Missoula's minor league baseball team) Spiker Communications on East Main St. had a softball-size rock thrown through two front windows. According to Spiker, it was the first act of vandalism against his workplace in 16 years of business. Neither the police nor Spiker could link the incident to a stadium opponent, though Spiker admits, "The timing was very suspicious."

Regardless of your stance on either project, these incidents represent the worst of a disturbing trend in Missoula politics; namely, the inability of some residents to remain open-minded and receptive to new ideas, to air their grievances in a calm, mature and civil manner, and most importantly, to maintain a sense of proportion and perspective on the very real but nonetheless very manageable differences we must resolve as a community. (KP)

Worst Use of Public Resources: McCormick Park (almost) and Roosevelt School

For a time, this dubious honor was nearly awarded to our elected officials occupying Missoula City Hall. In mid-June, The Missoula City Council, with the endorsement of Mayor Mike Kadas, voted to approve a resolution supporting the use of McCormick Park as the preferred site for the Missoula Osprey baseball stadium. Technically speaking, the language in the resolution read "in consideration of" the McCormick Park site, an 11th-hour amendment that did little to assuage the concerns of some area residents, who saw the selection of McCormick Park as "a blatant disregard for the public process," "a fast-track proposal crammed down the throat of Missoula," and "a fraudulent use of public space."

To those who regularly use McCormick Park (and there were hordes in attendance that steamy June evening) it appeared their humble slice of riverfront tranquility was being sold out to private enterprise-albeit the freckle-faced, hot dog-eatin', apple pie-lovin' face of private enterprise-for what amounted to little more than a song and a prayer.

School daze: Roosevelt school was closed to public-school students, then rented to a private school at a bargain price.

Thankfully, the stink emanating from the heels of that political misstep was enough to turn everyone's attention to an unused chunk of real estate, this one on the old Champion mill site just west of McCormick Park. Assuming the political winds don't remain variable on this issue, it appears this giveaway of a community resource has been narrowly averted.

However, a mere week after City Council wrangled over the aforementioned resolution, a far less well-attended public meeting was held by the Missoula County Public School's Board of Trustees. At this hearing, the school district decided to grant a 10-year lease to the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Helena, allowing St. Joseph's Elementary School, a private K-8 Catholic school, to rent the recently closed Roosevelt School.

With fewer than 10 people in attendance and several trustees absent on that Monday afternoon, the school board voted to lease out Roosevelt at a price of $60,000 a year, or less than $1.50 per square foot. This despite public objections that a better offer had been hinted at as recently as December 1997 by the Missoula Aging Services to lease the school at a rate of $6-$7 per square foot.

Moreover, the agreed-upon price was substantially below what the administration used in its 1997-'98 proposed budget, in which it estimated the income on Roosevelt School should be roughly $80,000 to $140,000 annually.

We at the Independent do not object to St. Joseph's, a religious institution, as the lessee of a school built at the public's expense. However, we do object to the school board's dubious efforts to obtain fair market value for what is clearly a valuable and marketable community resource. Especially in light of the trustees' claims as recently as six months ago that they were forced to close Roosevelt School due to a dwindling student-age population and the resulting fiscal constraints, the school board had an ethical, if not a fiduciary, duty to give us taxpayers the biggest bang for our buck. In this instance, it appears they gave away Roosevelt for a song and ... well, you know. (KP)

Worst Desecration of City History: Proposed Demolition of the Front Street Theatre

Until the Independent did a cover story on Missoula's endangered historic sites this May, no one seemed to know much of anything about the Front Street Theatre. Opinions varied on what the building's original function was. Its age was just as much a mystery. And its future was especially uncertain. But the fact of the matter is, the Front Street Theatre is one of the oldest buildings in Missoula, and plans are now afoot to tear it down to make room for-of all things-a parking lot.

The place now known as the Front Street was originally built around 1884 as a warehouse for Missoula Mercantile, the old dry-goods firm that is now the Bon Marché department store. A series of renovations over the decades turned the old masonry storehouse into clumsy, inorganic space, and made it, in the words of Missoula's Historic Preservation Officer Allan Mathews, "a hard sell" to historic preservationists. So perhaps it's no surprise that six parties are interested in buying the property-and all of them plan to use the place for parking. In fact, the Independent has learned that the leading bidder on the property is the Missoula Parking Commission, and that Federated Department Stores, the corporation that owns the Bon, will only sell it to the Commission on the condition that it be used for parking.

Much to their credit, Allan Mathews and other historic preservationists have rallied to the site's defense, officially protesting the destruction of downtown's second-oldest structure to put in surface parking. For its part, the Parking Commission says it plans to eventually build a parking structure on the site, if the sale goes through. All they need is the public money to build it. (BdeP)

Worst Utterance by a Public Official: U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns

Like you didn't see this one coming. Digging up some kind of gaffe from a year's worth of words, deeds and gestures by our not-quite native son Conrad Burns is like finding a needle in a stack of needles. But there's certainly no denying that most detestable of them was the speech he gave on Feb. 17 before Montana's Equipment Dealers Association, in which he referred to the members of oil-producing nations in the Middle East as "ragheads." Naturally, everyone from the Village Voice to the Sunday morning talk-show pundits attacked him like a Panzer division, and rightfully so. Bear in mind, this is the same man who once opined to the Bozeman Chronicle in 1994 that it was going to be "a hell of a challenge" for him to live in Washington, D.C., what with the city's majority-minority population. But apparently, he doesn't hate living there too much. In March, he broke his campaign promise not to seek re-election for a third term. So here's to Burns for bringing the level of discourse in Montana down a notch, and for taking American race relations back to a point somewhere around the Cretaceous Era. (BdeP)

Open mouth, insert foot: Sen. Conrad Burns wins the Worst Orator award.

Worst Non-Stance from an Activist Group: UM's Lambda Alliance

UM's Lambda Alliance, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) organization on campus is known for, among other things, its Edge of the World Dance Parties, held regularly downtown. But we've noticed that the fliers for the Edge of the World Parties always state the dance is happening "at the corner of Front and Pattee," which is, of course, the Elks Lodge, a popular venue for events such as this because of its immense dance floor and retro-ish decor.

It has always indeed seemed strange that Lambda wouldn't just come out and tell folks their dance was at the Elks Lodge. (Friends in the gay community told us the Elks asked Lambda to use these shadowy terms.) But interest wasn't truly piqued until last fall, when both KBGA, the campus radio station, and Lambda had scheduled parties at the Elks Lodge. There were the press releases, one after the other, but KBGA's plainly stated their party was at the Lodge while Lambda's Edge of the World dance was still at the "corner for Front and Pattee." Both were happening in the building on Halloween night.

According to KBGA, the only requirements the Elks had for advertising events at their lodge was that it not be referred to as a "club." When we presented this information to Lambda, they issued a statement saying that they had been informed that every group having an event there had to use those vague terms when advertising their Elks events.

Calls to the Elks, meanwhile, were greeted with hostility. They hung up on us twice. It seems the Elks liked the way things were just fine, thank you.

After more conversations with Lambda, it became clear that they didn't want to push the issue, because they like having their dances at the Elks Lodge. It's aesthetically pleasing, relatively inexpensive, and they can enjoy a drink there, they say.

We understand that Lambda's leadership are full-time students and therefore quite busy, and that they were following what they thought to be an across-the-board procedure, but when they found out there might be something fishy about the Elks' rules, they failed to get upset about it.

Since then, Lambda did say they would start referring to the Elks Lodge by name on their Edge of the World fliers. But shouldn't they, as the campus LGBT rights organization, have taken a stance when a stance was first needed? (SS)

Worst Enemy of Free Media: Lee Enterprises

A well-armed media being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to a free press shall not be infringed. At least, that's what we think. But surely, there has been no greater threat to independent journalism in Montana than Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based corporation that already owns most of the state's largest newspapers-and has stepped up its campaign in the past year to turn Montana into a fortified stronghold of corporate journalism.

In January, Lee began stockpiling more newspapers in the northwestern corner of the Treasure State, snatching up both the Whitefish Pilot and the Hungry Horse News, two of the region's largest weeklies. Then in May, Lee went on to claim Hamilton's local daily, the Ravalli Republic, fired the entire staff and gave its 46 members the option to reapply for their old jobs. Only eight were rehired on a permanent basis. Two more were rehired but put on six months' probation. The others who got their jobs back were rehired through a temp agency on a day-to-day basis, with no benefits.

Now, only eight months into its 1999 buying spree, Lee Enterprises owns five of Montana's daily papers, three of its weeklies, and more than a dozen so-called "special publications," like advertising circulars and Montana magazine. And there's no reason to believe that they'll stop there. In other words, it's never been more important than now to support the free press. (BdeP)

Ken Picard, Blake de Pastino and Sarah Schmid

And Another Thing...

Some of our "Worst of Missoula" runners-up

Least Friendly Traffic Signage: No Left Turn signs

These illuminated abominations that suddenly appeared on traffic signals last year do little but frustrate motorists, encourage illegal shortcuts through business driveways and give Missoula's motorcycle cops yet another enforcement chore. From a traffic standpoint, the idea might be a way of preventing rush-hour congestion. But here's a little advice: Next time, skip the high-tech gadgetry and simply post signs with the hours when left turns are not permitted. They cost less money, they're low maintenance, they could take the guesswork out of navigating our streets and remove the feeling that you're driving through a pinball machine where bells and whistles sound without warning. (KP)

Worst Utterance by a State Official: State Sen. Bruce Crippen

The constant upending of voter-approved initiatives easily takes the cake as the year's worst statewide political trend. But what made matters worse was the more-powerful-than-thou rhetoric that was often used to explain away the demises of such measures as CI-75 (which required the voters' OK for all new taxes and fees) and I-137 (the ban on cyanide mining). Which is why state Sen. Bruce Crippen (R-Billings) gets the runner-up award for Worst Oratory, for his now-famous statement during the debate on the cyanide referendum. Remember? "The will of the people pales in significance to the will of the body here and what we think is responsible action." Yeah, that statement. Here's hoping the folks in the polling booth remember that little soliloquy. (BdeP)

Least Pedestrian-Friendly Street: South Higgins Avenue

When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, the State of California eliminated crosswalks where pedestrians had to push a button to obtain the "walk" signal, the reason being that people in wheelchairs either couldn't reach the button or didn't get to it in time to cross. The same logic should apply in Missoula: If a traffic light turns green, the walk sign should come on. Having to wait for the traffic signal to cycle through again just reinforces the notion that automobiles are the primary traffic on our streets, and we pedestrians are a mere nuisance who must ask permission to proceed on our way. (KP)

Most Punchable Pundit (figuratively speaking, of course): Mona Charen

Although not a Missoula resident, the smug visage of this Beltway pundit appears in our town every week via the corporate news pipeline. A former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan who was nursed to political maturity at the sour teat of Pat Buchanan, Charen's shrill, partisan caterwauling is enough to curdle turpentine and flies in your face with all the compassion of an anti-personnel mine. In recent weeks, her columns have included inflammatory assertions that throughout the '60s and '70s the U.S. government "lavished freebies on Indian reservations," and that "Israel's left wing is obsessed with the Palestinians the way America's left wing is obsessed with minorities." Her recent critique of the American women's soccer championship took exception to player Brandi Chastain's display of exultation over their victory when she tore off her shirt to reveal (gasp!) a sports bra. Mona's enlightened endorsement of gender equality: "Kick the hell out of that ball, ladies. But keep your clothes on." To paraphrase a beloved school superintendent from back east, "The rod up that woman's butt has a rod up its butt." Donations are now being collected to buy Mona a soul. (KP)

Ken Picard and Blake de Pastino

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