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It was a difficult week for our state.
The historic flooding across south-central Montana that wiped out bridges and roads, washed away homes, and closed the nation’s oldest and most beloved national park wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands of residents and visitors just as the summer tourist season was kicking into high gear.
The remote communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City are all but isolated as bridges and roads leading to them are washed out. Much of Red Lodge is in ruins after Rock Creek jumped its banks and flowed freely through the town, destroying roads and homes. The Yellowstone gateway community of Gardiner escaped widespread damage from the flood itself, but with roads and bridges into the park out of commission, the tourism-dependent town is reeling with uncertainty about its economic future. On a visit there on Wednesday it felt like a ghost town, with hotels, restaurants and shops that would normally be packed with tourists instead shuttered indefinitely.
Low-lying farm fields and pastureland in Park, Carbon and Stillwater counties were submerged, stranding cattle and likely drowning some calves. As the water recedes, it’s leaving behind sand, rocks, silt, wood and other debris that will have to be cleaned up.
Miraculously, so far there have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries related to the flooding.
The other big news this week is that throughout it all, Gov. Greg Gianforte was on an overseas vacation. During the crisis, responsibility for responding to the disaster was handed over to Lt. Gov. Kristin Juras. For four days the governor’s office refused to disclose Gianforte’s whereabouts or say when he would return to the state. The governor’s spokesperson also refused to provide members of the press with a copy of the “express written authorization” granting Juras authority to respond to the flooding as acting governor.
Montanans later learned that Gianforte was in the Tuscany region of Italy. In an emailed statement to the press early Friday morning, the governor’s office confirmed that Gianforte left the state Saturday to travel to Italy and returned Thursday evening. Today, nearly a week after the chaos began, Gianforte is set to tour the hardest-hit communities.
Predictably, Gianforte’s absence has been turned into a political football, with national news outlets and social media pundits comparing Montana’s chief executive to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who infamously took a vacation to Cancun even as his state iced over in February of last year. The comparison is unfair. Gianforte couldn’t have foreseen this natural disaster any more than anyone else did, and governors get to vacation just like anyone else.
What’s lost in these easy attack lines is what the governor’s office actually did do wrong: fail to communicate clearly and transparently to constituents who had a legitimate right to know how the emergency response was being handled, and by whom. The transfer of power to acting governor Kristen Juras was intentionally obscured. The governor’s location and return plans were purposefully muddied. Constituents were left in the dark.
The impacts of this week’s floods will be felt for years to come. River channels have changed. Homes, bridges, and roads are gone. Entire communities face uncertainty over how they’ll rebuild and recover. They deserved better than to face it under another cloud of uncertainty about the whereabouts of their governor.
—John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
The state Board of Canvassers met this week to randomly select the precincts and races for which counties will conduct hand counts as part of the 2022 post-election audit. The hand counts “ensure that the various ballot tabulators used by the counties accurately reflect the vote of the people,” Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said this week. It’s a process that’s been on the books since 2009. The procedure for random selection is laid out in state administrative rule: “To select the specific races and precincts to be audited, the board shall use ten-sided dice with numerals from 0 to 9 as the method of random selection. One, two, or three dice shall be used as specified below. The dice shall be red, white, and blue in color where red is the first number, white is the second number, and blue is the third number, if necessary.”
—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter
Dept. of Corrections 🤥
As Montanans were gearing up for the primary election last week, the Missoula County Elections Office made an uncomfortable last-minute announcement: Due to a ballot-proofing error, two races for local Republican central committee positions failed to appear on the ballot. Election administrator Bradley Seaman apologized for the error, vowing to work with the committee to develop a remedy, while Missoula County Republican Party Chair Vondene Kopetski described the mistake as doubly unfortunate in light of unfounded but persistent allegations against the elections office that have sown doubt about the electoral processamong voters.
As Seaman underscored in a letter to Kopetski June 9, it’s not the easiest mistake to correct. Had the races for Lewis and Clark 90 West precinct committeeman and Hellgate 96 East precinct committeewoman appeared on the Republican primary ballot as intended, only voters casting a Republican ballot would have had a say in the outcome. But if Seaman’s office were to distribute a separate post-primary ballot for those races, Montana’s constitutional guarantee of ballot secrecy would prevent it from targeting only people who voted in the Republican primary. In other words, Republican and Democrat voters alike in the affected precincts would have a hand in influencing the makeup of Missoula’s GOP committee.
The only other remedies Seaman presented are for the committee to appoint replacements for those precinct positions until the next primary election — in June 2024 — or for the committee to conduct its own internal election process. In both cases, the process would fall entirely to the party. Seaman gave the committee until June 24 to let him know how it wants to proceed, and assured Kopetski that he’s already working to establish procedures to prevent such an error from happening again, including sending local parties copies of sample ballots in advance of future elections.
“The responsibility for this error,” Seaman wrote, “lies solely on myself.”
Kopetski told Montana Free Press this week that her committee isn’t leaning toward a particular remedy yet. She’s spoken with the secretary of state’s office, and Seaman’s letter is currently being reviewed by the party’s legal counsel. Once they settle on a preferred course of action, Kopetski said, she plans to sit down with Seaman and determine how the omissions happened in the first place. Understanding that question is as important as developing long-term procedural solutions, she said, because as far as her party has been able to gather, this kind of error has never occurred in a Montana election before.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Kopetski said. “We’ve been put in an untenable situation because it is unprecedented.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
The Viz 📈
Record flooding resulted across south-central Montana this week as wet air flowing in from the West Coast dumped rain on an above-average June snowpack. Some headwaters of the Yellowstone River doubled their volume over a 48-hour period, with the deluge scouring its way down the landscape from Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
By the time floodwaters peaked near Billings Wednesday, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge estimated the river flow at 84,000 cubic feet — the volume of 62 shipping containers — rushing past each second.
That flow was just enough to break the Yellowstone’s previous record at Billings, which had been set in 1997. Farther up the Yellowstone basin, though, this year’s flood shattered old records along with bridges, highways and houses.
At Corwin Springs, just downstream from Gardiner and the national park border, flows peaked at 49,400 cubic feet per second Monday afternoon, one-and-a-half-times the previous record of 32,200 cubic feet per second, also set in 1997. On the Stillwater River, which drains into the Yellowstone near Columbus, measured flows near Absarokee peaked at an estimated 23,900 cubic feet (or roughly 18 shipping containers) per second — nearly twice the previous record.
The deluge continues to gradually work its way down the Yellowstone basin. As of Friday morning, for example, the National Weather Service predicted the river at Miles City wouldn’t peak until early Saturday — but, by then, only at a minor flood stage.
—Amanda Eggert and Eric Dietrich, Reporters
By the Numbers 🔢
Number of complaints filed with the Montana Human Rights Bureau over vaccination status discrimination since May 7, 2021 — the day House Bill 702went into effect. The law prohibits state agencies, employers and public accommodations from denying goods, services or employment opportunities on the basis of vaccination status, and is currently unenforceable in health care facilities due to a district court injunction. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the bureau received a total of 690 human rights complaints during the same period, though the agency said there may be additional complaints that have not yet been entered into the system.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
“That declaration of Donald Trump as the next president would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis in America, which in my view — and I’m only one man — would have been the first constitutional crisis since the founding of the Republic.”
—Former federal appellate judge J. Michael Luttig, a Republican, testifying Thursday before a congressional select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The testimony of Luttig and others this week focused on Trump’s efforts to convince then-Vice President Mike Pence to unlawfully reject the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s repeated assertions that he’d rightfully won the election — both before and after the Jan. 6 confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory — sparked brushfires of election skepticism throughout the country. In Montana, Trump’s so-called Big Lie inspired more than a year of debate on election integrity, with a group of sympathetic Republican legislators aligning themselves with the Trump narrative, leveling their own allegations of voter fraud and unsuccessfully pushing for a special legislative session to investigate Montana’s election process.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — After spotting a small cinnamon bear cub crossing a central Montana highway a couple of weeks ago, I found myself revisiting this 2019 conversation between Sarah Aronson and Montana author Bryce Andrews, who does a beautiful job of articulating how people can help wild animals thrive.
Alex — Last week, New Mexico gave the rest of the country a vivid look at how the nationwide campaign of election skepticism arising from the 2020 presidential election can impact voters directly. As the Associated Press reported, the Republican-led Otero County Commission refused to certify the results of the county’s June 7 primary, demanding instead that the ballots be recounted by hand — and prompting New Mexico’s secretary of state to plead for judicial intervention.
Eric — Covering flooding this week, I’ve been spending a lot of quality time poring over the Montana Department of Transportation’s state highway map, using it to understand how the state’s rivers flow in relation to the highways and towns they’ve been inundating. Even in an age of interactive web maps on cell phones, the physical map remains a cartographic gem for anyone trying to understand this big state of ours. It is, of course, distributed free at gas stations — or you can find a PDF version here.
Mara — As LGBTQIA+ Pride Month ramps up nationwide, so too does backlash from far-right groups seeking to shut down celebrations and intimidate participants. This week, NBC News wrote about how that opposition is thriving online before erupting at real-life events and rallies. Some LGBTQIA+ people say the threats and violence are only more reason “to be visible and vocal and out there” in June and beyond.
Arren — Lost in the shuffle of “Hey, where’s the governor?” coverage this week was this story from HuffPo’s Chris D’Angelo about Ryan Zinke, former congressman, Secretary of the Interior and Republican U.S. House MT-1 hopeful, flubbing a financial disclosure deadline for the second time in a row. Per the story, Zinke’s Democratic opponent, attorney Monica Tranel, sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney in Montana calling for an investigation into his failure to file a timely report.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.