In $3.6 million Merc giveaway, MRA is poor negotiator

The Marriott hotel envisioned on the site of the former Missoula Mercantile building

Residents of Missoula and its partisans abroad know about the years-long saga that is the Mercantile. A Macy’s as recently as 2011, the historic downtown building sat vacant for six years, thwarting various development plans until HomeBase Montana offered to knock it down and build a Marriott in its place. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission denied that permit, in what might politely be called a complex process. The city overruled the committee, and HomeBase demolished the Merc in April. Then, at the end of June, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency voted to give the project $3.6 million in tax increment financing.

It was not a bailout. Most of the TIF money reimbursed the developers for stages of the project that had already happened: $1.5 million for “deconstructing” the building by reclaiming its materials instead of demolishing it outright, $336k for preserving the old pharmacy, and $150k in reimbursements for asbestos removal. All these were conditions of the original deal, which HomeBase had already met without running into cash-flow problems. Any suspicion that the project might need our $3.6 million to survive was erased by developer Andy Holloran, who told the Missoulian the hotel would generate more property tax revenue than expected because developers had “added $5 million more to the total project costs, including 27 more rooms than the original design.”

What, then, did the city of Missoula get for its $3.6 million? The things we bought—deconstruction, asbestos abatement, the pharmacy, and a guarantee the project would move forward—were already ours. This TIF money neither extracted concessions from the developers nor saved the project. So is the MRA saying that paying $3.6 million to expand the project was a wise investment, because a bigger hotel will generate more tax revenue? If so, that’s a new vision of the agency’s function. Historically, the MRA has acted to encourage new development projects, not invested in ones that were already underway.

A lot of public money went to a private business venture in this deal. Given how little the public seems to have gotten, its worthwhile to ask in whose interest the MRA negotiated. Reimbursing developers for what they agreed to do on their own dime does not strike me as sharp dealing. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Valerie Stamey returns, clothed in righteous fire

Former Ravalli County Treasurer and missing person Valerie Stamey

It’s been over a year since the last time we heard from Valerie Stamey. Last May, we got the headline Former County Treasurer Found and Served, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about my favorite story in Montana politics. Stamey was appointed treasurer on a 3-2 vote by Ravalli County commissioners in 2013. She served about eight months before she was suspended in June 2014. During her tenure, the office filed no monthly reports and the fire department ran out of money. After she left, investigators found $780,000 in undeposited checks lying around her office. The county estimates it spent around six figures putting the office of the treasurer back in order after she left. Stamey was found guilty of official misconduct and fined in absentia, but by that time, she was gone. Her husband told reporters she was in a different state, but he wouldn’t say which. Process servers who hoped to find her at the auction of her home were disappointed.

Now she’s back, though, and more Stamey than ever. Last week, her attorney announced that she was suing the county and about a dozen of its employees for $20.2 million—that’s $240,000 for “lost economic opportunities” and $20 million in punitive damages. Among those to be punished are the county attorney, the former treasurer, three former deputy treasurers, the county clerk and the owners of the Bitterroot Star newspaper, all of whom are named as defendants in the suit. Their co-defedants include Greg Chilcott, J.R. Iman, Jeff Burrows, Chris Hoffman and Suzy Foss—the five members of the Ravalli County Commission that made her treasurer in the first place.

Stamey’s lawsuit claims that county commissioners conspired with treasury employees and the newspaper to “create the false impression that she was incompetent.” I’m no lawyer, but I think she’d have a better shot if she didn’t put the word “false” in there. This conspiracy does explain why the county commission appointed a treasurer who had no experience in managerial accounting, a history of bad debts, and a FUFI judgment against her. They needed a patsy. The only other explanation is that they made the worst hiring decision in Ravalli County history, exhibiting astonishingly poor judgment in the process. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Montana struck by earthquake; two-headed calf born; I get Best Writer as end draws nigh

Pretty cute but will not stop saying “he is coming”

That tremor Montanans felt last night was Norman Maclean rolling over in his grave. The well-intentioned maniacs who voted in this year’s Best of Misssoula poll have selected me as best writer over perennial winner James Lee Burke, strengthening the case that Indy readers are making fun of me. Burke has published more novels than I have visited states. He has received numerous professional awards, justly, and I suspect his being unjustly denied this one will escape his notice. I, on the other hand, am embarrassed. Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll, and thank you to the awesome power of selection bias.

I also got best journalist, which is the same bullshit that happened last year. You know who the best journalist in Missoula is? Derek Brouwer. It’s either him or Erika Fredrickson. Both of those people go out there and gather real information they fashion into news, while I stay home and pretend to be wrong about it. It’s an unjust system. But we must obey the Best of Missoula electoral college, which awarded me the win this year even though I lost the popular vote. You can read all about it in this week’s column, in which I make common cause with the president in our search for evidence to back our claims of fact. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to celebrate. Mark McGwire, Milli Vanilli, and the guy who accepted the Best Picture Oscar for Crash are all waiting for me at Dave & Buster’s.

Daines says flag is a symbol but burning it is not expression

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) at the roast of Green Goblin

Ours is a lively time for federal government. Just this morning, Republicans in the Senate released a health care bill they’ve been crafting for weeks. We’ve withdrawn from the Paris climate accords. According to the president, who is admittedly not a reliable source, the president is under investigation by special prosecutor. Now seems like a particularly thrilling moment to be a US senator. With a seat in that chamber, a person could shape history. In unrelated news, Sen. Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, has proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning.

On Flag Day, his office issued a press release touting his plan to “give Congress the authority to prohibit burning of the American flag.” It included approving reactions form the Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion on behalf of the Citizens Flag Alliance and, on the left, prominent American civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz the American Legion of Montana. Although the amendment looks like a slam dunk among Eisenhower-era social organizations, its reception in the press was more mixed. Here’s Jesse Chaney of the Helena Independent Record, on the campaign’s opinion about whether this isn’t the first restriction on free expression in American history:

Daines’ staff said the senator does not consider flag desecration to be a form of peaceful expression. They said his amendment would not limit anyone’s right to expression, but [would] distinguish flag desecration as conduct not protected by the Constitution. The senator’s staff noted that Congress already bans many other forms of conduct through criminal law.

I checked with a lawyer, and that last part is right: criminal law does ban many forms of conduct. But all expression is a form of conduct. It’s a subcategory. Daines’s argument is like saying, “That’s not a square; it’s a rhombus.” What distinguishes expression as a particular type of conduct is its symbolic meaning. Speaking aloud is conduct, but it is the symbolic content of the noise that we endeavor to keep free. And Sen. Daines himself calls the flag a symbol twice in the second paragraph of his press release. Quote:

The American flag has been a symbol of hope and freedom for centuries and ought to be respected. Our nation’s flag must be set apart as a protected symbol worthy of honor.

It’s almost like his argument has no underlying logical framework at all. Maybe it sounds better in the original Goblish. You can read many such cheap cracks and appeals to internal coherence in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

We will not be back tomorrow with Friday links. We will be driving to a wedding in Washington state, and the following week we’ll be in New York City with our girlfriend. There will be no Combat! blog from Monday, June 26th through Wednesday, July 5th, so that I can work on the goddamn novel and still have time to see the sights. Is this the longest vacation Combat! blog has taken in its nine-year tradition of existence? Yes it is. Will we all be okay? Probably. What am I, a futurologist?

Gianforte avoids jail time for assaulting reporter, now supports free press

Greg Gianforte cuts a promo for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

On Monday, Gallatin County Justice Court sentenced Greg Gianforte to 40 hours of community service for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Judge Rick West also ordered the representative-elect to complete 20 hours of anger management classes. Gianforte has pled guilty, apologized to Jacobs, and pledged to donate $50,000 to Committee to Protect Journalists. In court, he described the assault as follows: “I grabbed his wrist. A scuffle ensued, and he was injured, as I understand it.”

That’s accurate, I guess, but it is phrased in a way that minimizes his responsibility. A “scuffle ensued” when Gianforte attacked Jacobs. “He was injured” by Gianforte. It is good that the representative-elect understands that, since he is the one who did it. This statement suggests that Gianforte has learned his lesson, and the lesson is that he can assault a reporter and suffer no meaningful consequences for his actions.

His party has learned a lesson, too. According to McClatchy, Republicans across the country are planning to make 2018 a “referendum on the media” by “embracing conflict with local and national journalists, taking them on to show Republicans voters that they, just like the president, are battling a biased press corps out to destroy them.” That’s exciting. I think it’s a stretch to say a biased press corps is out to destroy Republican voters, though. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes voters also view press coverage as an obstacle to their agenda, when the press is how voters learn what politicians are up to.

Here’s a timely example of how the press and voters are actually on the same side. In the hours after Gianforte assaulted Jacobs, his campaign released a statement claiming that the “liberal journalist” grabbed Gianforte and caused them both to fall. That wasn’t true. Gianforte threw Jacobs to the ground and punched him. The accurate version of events only came out because a Fox News crew was in the room at the time. Through his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, Gianforte lied to voters. He then refused to speak to reporters for the next 24 hours, throughout election day, evidently hoping his campaign’s false statement would hold up long enough for Montanans to vote.

Never forget that Rep. Gianforte’s endgame was to get elected based on false information. He lied to voters and stonewalled the press. There is no reason to believe he thinks we are all in this together against the fake news. He is the fake news. You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!