The last day of the year is also the best time of the year to look back and reflect on the past 12 months’ worth of major events, a ritual done in hopes of gleaning some wisdom from the past to apply in the year to come.
On the Opinion page, this means reviewing some of the major controversies and hottest topics for discussion among our readers and writers. Here are six issues that shook up the conversion in western Montana in 2017:
The City of Missoula takes over Mountain Water
Nearly everyone can agree that the finalization of the city’s purchase of the local water utility, now called Missoula Water, is the most momentous event in Missoula’s recent history. But that’s where the agreement ends.
The years-long, complex saga of multiple corporate entities, legal arguments and financial entanglements gave rise to many points of criticism. Some took issue with the city’s condemnation approach, while others were alarmed at the steeply rising costs, and still others decried the lack of transparency concerning still-undisclosed legal fees.
The official takeover took place on June 23. Since that date, the utility has installed hundreds of new water meters, completed new pipe connections, and maintained or replaced equipment without raising rates on its 23,000 customers. It’s also collecting nearly $2.5 million a month, putting it on solid track for the planned $8 million in upgrades over the next year. It’s also working with Trout Unlimited and Fish, Wildlife and Parks to remove a useless old dam from Rattlesnake Creek.
So it’s little wonder why Mayor John Engen highlighted the city’s ownership of its own water system as a signature achievement in his successful bid for re-election. The transition from Mountain Water to Missoula Water is ultimately a success story, and one that promises to pay off for decades to come.
The University of Montana begins a major transition
UM started 2017 mourning the sad news that its longest-serving president, George Dennison, had died of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. President Royce Engstrom had stepped down about a month earlier, and former Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns had been tapped to serve as interim president.
For the past year, Stearns has overseen the university as it undertook a search to select a new president as well as a prioritization process meant to cut any fat from the university while positioning it to reverse a decline in enrollment. The process itself has been decried by some who thought it would not result in a fair or useful set of recommendations. In the meantime, an estimated 90 employees, including high-level administrators, have accepted buyout offers, and a pool of 30 lecturers have been notified that their contracts will not be renewed. That notification, however, was recalled, then reissued and rescinded once more after the faculty union raised concerns about it.
All this serves to position 2018 as a pivotal year for UM. Any concrete decisions stemming from the prioritization process have yet to be determined, and will be left up to incoming President Seth Bodnar to take the next critical steps.
Ryan Zinke appointed secretary of the Department of the Interior
It seemed that no sooner had Zinke won re-election as Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House than he was tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the Interior Department. He was confirmed on March 1 without much controversy and with high hopes from his fellow Montanans.
He began disappointing those same Montanans immediately, on his first day issuing an order, among others, to allow lead ammunition and fish tackle on national wildlife refuges. Since then he has supported deep budget cuts to his own agency, halted progress on tribal management of the National Bison Range, recommended reducing a number of national monuments in a review rife with errors, accused “30 percent” of his department’s employees of being “disloyal to the flag” and recommended dramatic rate hikes at some of the nation’s most popular national parks, including Yellowstone and Glacier.
Less than a year into his appointment, the list of examples of Zinke’s poor stewardship is already long.
The special election of Greg Gianforte to the U.S. House
The special election in May was itself a controversial topic, with a heated battle over the costs and integrity of mail ballots. The contest between Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte, who had failed to defeat Steve Bullock in a bid for governor just a few months earlier, only added fuel to the fire.
Things reached a fever pitch the night before the special election when Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter from the Guardian. Appalled, the Missoulian editorial board took the unprecedented step of revoking our earlier editorial endorsement of Gianforte, which had been issued with grave reservations even after a previous editorial took Gianforte to task for “jokingly” pointing to a Ravalli Republic reporter and noting that he was outnumbered in the room.
Gianforte’s campaign issued a statement falsely blaming the reporter for the attack, and documents show Gianforte himself initially misled investigators about the incident before pleading guilty in court and apologizing to the reporter, Ben Jacobs. However, he has yet to account for his campaign’s statements or to sit down for a promised interview with Jacobs.
The Legislature meets, then meets again
The 2017 Legislature convened in regular session in January on a promising note, and indeed, bipartisan work led to a number of important legislative accomplishments. Missoula’s own Sen. Cynthia Wolken led a number of criminal justice reforms to approval, and legislators grudgingly agreed to raise the state gas tax and fund some infrastructure projects.
Unfortunately, the budget legislators thought they were working with turned out to be widely off the mark as revenue projections came in much lower than expected. Facing the prospect of steep cuts, the Legislature was called into a brief special session in November to balance the budget; however, Montana still faces an onslaught of cuts that will reduce or eliminate important services to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Wildfires ravage Montana
It was a fire season for the record books, both in terms of acres burned (more than 1 million) and firefighting costs (more than $368 million). Worst of all, two young firefighters were killed. The state had to do some creative accounting to cover its $70 million portion of the costs, and is left in a poor position to pay its tab for next summer’s wildfires.