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On Monday, Attorney General Austin Knudsen spoke to a meeting of health care workers and community members in Sidney, where some employees of the Sidney Health Center were protesting the hospital’s intention to comply with a federal vaccine mandate for health care providers that receive Medicaid and Medicare funding. 

What did Knudsen say at the meeting? 

We don’t know, because photos and recordings of the meeting were prohibited, and only Sidney Health Center employees were allowed to talk to the speakers, one of whom was Knudsen.

Knudsen’s spokesperson, Emilee Cantrell, told MTFP reporter Mara Silvers prior to the meeting that she did not have any prepared remarks to provide. Cantrell also said she wouldn’t record Knudsen’s address, which was delivered via Zoom. 

Alex Sakariassen’s investigative report today, about a Nov. 10 meeting between Knudsen’s staff and election conspiracist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, also cited Cantrell. And again, Knudsen’s press secretary was not forthcoming with information about what happened at that meeting, including whether Knudsen himself met with Lindell, a peddler of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

Cantrell is among dozens of taxpayer-funded public information officials whose job is to supply the press — and thus the public — with information about what our elected officials are up to. In her case, she gets paid $35.78 an hour, or $74,422 a year, to do that job. Her boss, the attorney general’s Communications Director Kyler Nerison, pulls in a six-figure government salary, earning $49.29 per hour, or $102,523 a year. 

Increasingly, these well-paid government officials are blowing off news reporters. In this story from July about state guidance on a law that bars Montana agencies and businesses from requiring vaccines, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry didn’ respond to Alex’s request for comment on what vaccination incentives might be considered illegally coercive. The department pays public information officer Jessica Nelson $29 an hour, or $60,320 a year. Her boss, Director of Strategic Communications and Data John Elizandro, earns $51.88 an hour, or $107,910 a year. 

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen rarely talks to the press, and her office regularly declines to comment to reporters. Like in this story, about a class-action lawsuit alleging that the secretary of state’s office wrongfully retained $120,000 in duplicate filing fee charges paid by Montana businesses in 2020. Jacobsen spokesperson Richie Melby, who didn’t respond to Alex’s email seeking comment, earns a taxpayer-funded salary of $39 an hour, or $81,120 a year.

And it’s not just elected state officials who make a habit of avoiding the press. In this story, about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Montana’s sole representative, Matt Rosendale, refused to comment on the siege. His then-communications director, Harry Fones, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Fones was paid $51,916.67 between Jan. 3 and June 30. 

Taxpayer dollars fund generous salaries to these officials, whose job is to inform the public about where elected officials stand on important issues, what actions they’re taking in office, who they’re meeting with, and how they go about representing their constituents. 

This lack of government transparency makes reporters’ work more challenging, but it doesn’t mean we’ll stop doing it. Because reporting where elected officials stand on important issues, what actions they’re taking in office, who they’re meeting with, and how they represent their constituents is our job, too. 

Accountability journalism is expensive to produce. If the dogged pursuit of truth and transparency in government is valuable to you, will you help us do it? We need to raise $125,000 by Dec. 31 to fund our investigative reporting in 2022. Between now and the end of the year, all new donations to Montana Free Press will be doubled thanks to the support of NewsMatch and a generous group of donors. Please help us reach this critical fundraising goal. Double your donation today. 

— John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

Viewshed 🌄

Photo courtesy of Fergus County Sheriff’s Office

The West Wind Fire, a highly unusual wildfire for this time of year, destroyed 25 structures in an agricultural community southeast of Great Falls this week. As of Thursday evening, 177 personnel were responding to the fire, which grew to more than 10,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of Denton (population 205), pictured above. Record high temperatures and wind gusts contributed to the advance of the grassfire, which is believed to have been started by downed power lines Nov. 30.

Other fires were also reported near Great Falls and Browning this week. Eleven homes burned in Great Falls’ Gibson Flats neighborhood. 

University of Montana fire ecologist Phil Higuera notes that fuels in the region are very much primed to burn, with energy release components — a measure of live and dead fuel moisture — approaching levels typically seen in July and August. 

“This is what an extending fire season from #ClimateChange looks like,” he tweeted.

Alicia Rutz set up a GoFundMe page to help Denton recover from the West Wind Fire. As of Friday morning, more than $23,000 has been raised, with proceeds going directly to families affected by the fire, according to the fundraiser description. Other ways to assist Denton residents include a donation effort organized by Montana Winter Fair or Opportunity Bank of Montana’s Denton Fire Relief Fund

Tweetstorm, Explained 🌩

The Montana News Guild, the union representing newsroom staff at the Billings Gazette, took to Twitter this week to decry a bid by Alden Global Capital to purchase the Gazette’s parent company, Lee Enterprises.

Lee, which owns 77 media properties nationwide and most of the major daily newspapers in Montana, has for years faced criticism over newsroom cuts imposed as the company has struggled through the newspaper industry’s broader business woes. Alden, though, is a hedge fund with a reputation for full-fledged vulture capitalism.

In a piece published last month, the Atlantic magazine described Alden’s approach to newspaper ownership as “strip-mining local-news outfits”:

The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self.

The Montana News Guild and Lee’s other unions echoed those concerns in their statement, saying Lee’s management has historically cited Alden “as an example of how not to run a news company.”

In announcing its offer, Alden claimed they’re reaffirming their “substantial commitment to the newspaper industry.” This is a bold-faced lie. 

It’s unclear as of this writing whether Alden’s bid will be successful. Lee’s corporate board has approved a so-called poison pill plan intended to stave off a hostile takeover.

In Montana, Lee owns the Billings Gazette, Missoulian, Ravalli Republic (Hamilton), Independent Record (Helena) and Montana Standard (Butte), and also staffs a state news bureau. Daily newspapers in Great Falls, Bozeman and Kalispell are part of different chains.

Eric Dietrich

Verbatim 💬

“This Court has determined that the [Montana Board of Regents], not the Legislature, has the power to determine whom may carry firearms on [Montana University System] property. Furthermore, there is no controlling legal authority that a member of the general public has the right to carry, openly or concealed, a firearm under either the United States Constitution or the Montana Constitution.”

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon, in his Tuesday order declaring House Bill 102 unconstitutional on university campuses in Montana. McMahon’s ruling came in the Board of Regents’ lawsuit against the state, which challenged the new law as an infringement of the board’s constitutional authority over the Montana University System. Attorney General Austin Knudsen immediately appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court this week. 

Alex Sakariassen

The Viz 📈

Presenting to a legislative committee this week, an analyst for the Pew Charitable Trusts offered up a one-slide explanation for Montana’s housing crunch:

We covered the analysis in more detail in a story published Monday.

Eric Dietrich

Character Study

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte picked Andrew “Andy” Breuner to fill an open seat in Montana’s 18th Judicial District in Gallatin County — the second judge Gianforte has directly put on the bench since being awarded that power by the Legislature earlier this year.

Breuner has served as a judge in Belgrade City Court since 2015, earning him widespread admiration and respect, judging by the 86 pages of public comment he received. 

“His moral foundation and worldview is rooted in family and faith,” wrote Gallatin County resident David Loia, who said he had known Breuner and his family for several years. 

“Judge Breuner’s demeanor and judicial approach has fostered an environment where defendants understand the severity of their actions but are treated as human beings … He is fair, humble, and consistent, and I have not seen politics or personal beliefs affect his rulings,” wrote attorney Karolina Tierney. 

Breuner did not, however, lead the pack of four applicants in his tally of public support. Attorney Audrey Schultz Cromwell, who has served as a Judge Pro Tempore in Gallatin County Justice Court and Bozeman Municipal Court, received nearly 200 pages of endorsements.

Breuner’s relevant experience extends beyond the legal realm. His application disclosed that since moving to Montana in 2002 he has served on the boards of a Catholic radio station, nonprofit Christian ministry Love INC, and Petra Academy, a private school in Bozeman. Gianforte also once served on the board of Petra Academy, where his children attended school. 

In an interview with Belgrade News, Breuner said he and Gianforte know each other well from their experience at Petra. 

“He knows what my skill sets are, he knows my personality, he knows what my values are,” Breuner said.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Gianforte said Breuner would make an “exceptional” judge.

“He is committed to the fair, consistent, and objective application of the law, and I’m confident he’ll serve Gallatin County well by interpreting laws, not making them from the bench,” the governor wrote.

Breuner will begin serving in his new role in January. He will need to win reelection in November 2022 in order to retain the seat.

Mara Silvers

By the Numbers 🔢

Temperature reached in Billings on Dec. 2, breaking the previous record (set in 1939 and tied in 1956) by 6 degrees.

Other Montana cities including Kalispell, Butte, Miles City and Livingston also set records this week, continuing a months-long trend of unusually warm temperatures. According to the National Weather Service, the average high temperature in Billings was more than 10 degrees above normal on 13 of 30 days last month.

NWS meteorologist Nickolai Reimer said what most strikes him about this week’s string of high temps is the “sheer number of records we’ve been setting” and the literal degree to which they’re exceeding old records. 

“We’re beating some of these on the order of 6, 7 degrees — they’re not just broken, they’re shattered,” he said. “And some of these are very old records.”

Montana State University paleoclimatologist Cathy Whitlock recently put the state’s unseasonable warmth into perspective for the New York Times, drawing a connection between high temperatures, drought conditions and climate change. 

“We’re looking at conditions we haven’t seen for a thousand years in Montana and probably longer in terms of the drought,” she said.

On Our Radar 

Mara Silvers: The past two years of pandemic coverage have made me greatly appreciate journalists who actually understand science. In that vein, this Stat News explainer about researching the new Omicron variant was helpful. But if some of the technical terminology still goes in one ear and out the other, here’s one takeaway: Be patient. Forecasting the next chapter of the COVID saga won’t happen overnight. 

Eric Dietrich: This piece from The New Yorker explores how old trucks have become status symbols in Austin, Texas as professional class newcomers drop cash on possessions that make them feel like authentic locals. I suspect you could pretty easily write the same story about Toyota Tacomas or vintage Subarus in any number of Montana burgs.

Amanda Eggert: This GQ story about mountaineer-photographer-filmmaker Jimmy Chin gave me a welcome break from this week’s grim news cycle. As a good profile does, it prompted a bit of inquiry into the human condition. Jacob Baynham, a Missoula-based journalist with a rare talent, wrote the piece.

Alex Sakariassen: We’ve all been hearing plenty the past few months about critical race theory as a flash-point issue in public education. But I hadn’t fully grasped how intensely the debate has affected some teachers until I caught this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a politically charged showdown over race curricula at the University of Florida that has one professor potentially looking for a new job. 

*Linked articles may be behind a paywall.