State officials are questioning the language used by a local group to collect signatures opposing the state’s plan to build Missoula College on the University of Montana’s South Campus.
The group, Advocates for Missoula’s Future, denied its members misled citizens who signed the petition, calling accusations stating otherwise “hearsay.”
Kevin McRae, associate commissioner with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the Montana University System and the Board of Regents believe the group misled signees by giving them false information about the construction project’s impact on tuition, sporting events and open space.
“We’ve been told by students that they were told they could keep tuition from rising if they signed the petition,” McRae said. “In reality, of course, tuition isn’t connected to the building (Missoula College).”
Parents and students who attended a local cross-country meet reported that signature gatherers said they could continue visiting Missoula for future races while saving Girl Scout activities and wildlife, among other things, if they signed the petition.
Regents learned that the group also may have told visitors at one Earth Day event that green space would be preserved if they signed the petition. By green space, the group was referring to the University Golf Course, near which Missoula College would be placed.
Officials have repeatedly said the golf course would be preserved for the foreseeable future, even after Missoula College was built.
“Cross-country meets aren’t connected to the (Missoula College) building,” McRae said. “Missoula’s green space will not only endure, it will be enhanced by the walking trails and landscaping of the South Campus.”
Lewis Schneller, a member of the Advocates group, said he received a $40 check from Jack Lyon, the group’s treasurer, to pay for a booth at the University Center on campus, where volunteers set up a table to collect student signatures.
Schneller said they gathered 700 student signatures in three days during the first week of fall semester. While students were told that tuition would increase if Missoula College were built on the South Campus, Schneller said, it wasn’t the main issue of the petition drive.
“I’ve heard discussions that there’s a potential for increased tuition and fees for those particular students at Missoula College, who would be under the umbrella of the university and would be taking classes on the main campus,” Schneller said. “I heard people talking about that, but it was never a promotional effort of ours.”
Peggy Kuhr, president of integrated communications at UM, said that’s not true. More than 500 students at Missoula College already attend classes on the main university campus.
It would be misleading, Kuhr said, to suggest that tuition would increase for those students, or any other student, if Missoula College were developed on the South Campus.
“There’s no connection between what tuition would be and the development of the South Campus,” Kuhr said. “Tuition comes from the Board of Regents. Connecting a new Missoula College or any other building with tuition – there’s just no connection.”
State officials also believe the wording used by Advocates for Missoula’s Future on at least one petition used to collect roughly 800 signatures was misleading.
The petition’s language suggests that signees could save “girl scouts, cross-country skiers, youth sledding and local wildlife” by joining the group’s push to stop the construction of Missoula College.
“Those are not true statements,” said Bill Johnston, director of Alumni Relations. “Who wouldn’t sign a petition to save motherhood, apple pie and baseball? They (the group) certainly didn’t explain to them (the signees) that all these things will continue.”
Advocates member Cindy Reimers said group members have been truthful in their efforts to block construction of Missoula College on the South Campus.
“If someone signed it (the petition) and then afterward became persuaded they shouldn’t have, it is not our fault,” Reimers wrote. “I am certain no one in our group has used lies to obtain a signature. Ridiculous notion.”
The Montana Board of Regents and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education has named Missoula College its top funding priority this legislative session.
The Missoula Chamber of Commerce also has teamed up with other chambers across the state in support of the project, calling it essential for workforce development and business growth.
But core members of the opposition group have threatened to sue the state if it approves funding to build Missoula College, using a 91-year-old pledge by a defunct organization as its basis.
Members also have threatened to withdraw donations from the UM Foundation, which funds student scholarships, if construction is approved.
“I’ve heard people in the group stand and talk about retribution against the university, such as withholding funding,” said Board of Regents member Pat Williams. “Retribution that affects students isn’t appropriate, in my mind.”
Over the past few months, group members have said they’ve collected 7,000 signatures, and have used the figure to suggest they’ve mustered significant local opposition to the state’s plans for Missoula College.
Members have mentioned the figure in at least seven letters printed in the Missoulian and Billings Gazette. They also presented the number to the Board of Regents in November, and told legislators the same at a subcommittee hearing Monday in Helena.
The Missoulian has asked the group several times to share its petitions in hopes of verifying the signatures. The group’s core members have refused each time, saying it would violate the privacy of those who signed the list.
However, there is no expectation of privacy when signing a petition used in public testimony, or when it’s submitted to the state for review.
“My personal view is that you have a lot of nerve to think compiling the signatures for your review is something we should be happy to do,” group member Jack Lyon responded in one email.
A review of the signatures by the Missoulian State Bureau Thursday in Helena – where the petitions are now on record – counted roughly 5,279 signatures on two separately worded petitions. The state places the number of signatures at roughly 4,600.
A state employee said the individual petitions will be archived in the public record.
Questions about the integrity of the group’s campaign also have turned toward an alleged donor who, according to the group’s own discussions, might contribute $23 million to build Missoula College.
When asked who the mysterious donor was, group members suggested it was only a “rumor.” They couldn’t identify the source of the rumor or who the donor was, though one member was eager to tell the story publicly.
“There’s a rumor going around that a wealthy donor has offered $23 million to help build Missoula College,” Lyon wrote in a letter printed in the Missoulian. “This is a wonderful development ...”
The Montana University System said it has never heard of any such donor.
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, email@example.com or @martinkidston.