- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Great Falls Tribune, March 13, on improving Montana’s airports:

Airports in Great Falls and Helena lack modern scanning equipment at security checkpoints, and it’s causing trouble for air passengers trying to leave those cities. Lines of passengers waiting to clear security have mushroomed in Great Falls, especially in the last few months, and are expected to grow in the Capital City this summer.

Both airports, in Great Falls and Helena, spent money to accommodate improved security equipment, but both had equipment removed by the Transportation Security Administration since 2013 for not enough use. Helena received a full-body scanner in 2013, but TSA removed the scanner in the fall. Great Falls has yet to receive a full-body scanner but had two metal detectors through the end of 2014. Then TSA abruptly removed one of the detectors in December 2014 and sent it to a warehouse, contributing to security line delays in Great Falls.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., grilled TSA officials recently at a hearing, arguing inadequate equipment is not good for either Montanans or other air passengers around the country.

“My neighbors need to fly safely, too,” Tester told TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. “It’s critically important that we put forth the same level of security at all the nation’s airports.”

TSA’s response was its budget doesn’t allow more sophisticated scanners at smaller airports. According to TSA, scanners are provided to airports with annual boardings of 250,000; Great Falls has grown to 190,000 boardings but doesn’t yet meet the standard, and Helena’s airport has fewer boardings than Great Falls has.

We believe it’s important to have up-to-date security apparatus in central Montana’s largest airports, and we’d like the state’s full congressional delegation to advocate for lowering the number of boardings required to qualify for a full-body scanner. In the least, TSA could bring back the extra metal detector to Great Falls to help speed things up a bit before a full-body scanner is provided.

We strongly support upgrading equipment in the Great Falls and Helena airports.

In Great Falls, Airport Director John Faulkner says when a security line stretches 90 feet across the airport lobby, passengers can expect a 15-minute wait to get through security. But at busier times, clearing security may take as long as 27 minutes. Great Falls once again is seeing incidents of passengers not making their flights and getting angry about it.

Under current circumstances, passengers need to get to the Great Falls airport sooner. Where Faulkner once advised passengers to arrive at the airport 90 minutes ahead of time, now he’s recommending getting to the airport two hours before a flight takes off.

“I feel really bad for those folks who miss flights because of longer security checks, just a few years after the airport spent $7 million in part to expand the checkpoint,” Faulkner told the Tribune’s Peter Johnson. “But they have to take some responsibility in arriving early enough.”

Other factors come into play here. Montanans are older than average, with joint replacements, so they set off metal detectors and require many pat-downs that slow down TSA agents. A full-body scanner would sharply reduce the need for pat-downs. By the way, Faulkner believes TSA agents in Great Falls are doing a good job given equipment limitations.

With news stories about dangerous-looking items clearing airport security, and terrorist threats, TSA is trying to be more thorough checking carry-ons and other items being taken into airplane cabins.

It’s a shame to take a step backward with long lines at Montana airports. Passengers should get to the terminal earlier, and our people in Congress should work to allocate more money so proper equipment is used at Montana’s urban airports.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/1Mir1op


The Independent Record, March 15, on government accountability and transparency:

Despite what some public servants seem to think, the government works for the people — not the other way around.

That means when appointed or elected government officials gather to discuss public matters, the public has a right to be there. When they communicate about public business in writing — whether that’s on paper, in an email or in any other form — the public has a right to see it.

Though there are some exceptions to these rules, which are grounded in state and federal law, our representative democracy would not work without them. That’s why we hope people will not stand idly by when public officials impede or outright block their legal right to know.

As we’ve reported many times, Montana’s closed-government problem has been reaffirmed time after time the last decade or so through studies conducted by a variety of organizations. One of the latest reports came from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan nonprofit that gave Montana a D grade in 2015 for government accountability and transparency.

Among the issues identified in the report is a costly public records system that requires citizens to sue the government to obtain public records withheld by public employees. We can attest that filing a costly lawsuit is sometimes the only way to get these documents, as we’ve had to do it before.

The report also noted that while Montana laws promise accountability on paper, they lack bite in practice. Montana officials love to tout the state’s constitutional provision that gives citizens the right to inspect public records and attend meetings of public agencies, but that is all meaningless without a system in place to enforce it.

We don’t want to give the impression that all local and state officials in Montana are trying to conceal public information.

Many of the public servants we work with every day have demonstrated a high level of commitment to government transparency, at least when working with the press, and a lot of public records are easily available online. Look for the “Sunshine Week” logo in our coverage this week for examples of stories made possible by public records that have been made accessible.

But we’ve also dealt with those who like to exploit the state’s weak transparency laws to withhold public information. And that will probably continue to happen until the people of Montana make it a priority to fix this systemic problem.

In honor of Sunshine Week, a national initiative that runs from today through Saturday promoting open government and freedom of information, we encourage Montanans to push for more transparency and accountability within our government.

We want to see laws prohibiting government officials from discussing the public’s business in private emails, and we want public officials to be required to respond to records requests within a reasonable amount of time. We also want the state to implement a formal process that compels officials to provide public information without involving the courts, and we want to see criminal penalties implemented for those who still fail to do so.

Above all, we want all government officials in Montana to fulfill their constitutional obligation to operate openly and transparently. Because a watched government is an accountable government, and the taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1LpaTX6


Billings Gazette, March 14, on more transparency for political campaigns:

A law must be enforceable to be effective. When elected officials or candidates for office flout the law, holding them accountable is even more important.

But that isn’t a quick or easy task as evidenced by the civil case against Rep. Art Wittich. Wittich, a Bozeman Republican, is scheduled for trial on charges that he violated Montana’s campaign finance law by accepting thousands of dollars worth of letters and mailing services from out-of-state groups and not reporting those donations. The allegations date to the 2010 elections when Wittich was seeking re-election to the Montana Senate.

Wittich has denied the campaign violations and invoked his right to a jury trial. This case has been postponed many times, and last week Wittich’s attorneys moved again to have the case thrown out.

On Tuesday, District Court Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda denied that motion and other motions Wittich filed to block testimony of expected prosecution witnesses in a trial set to begin on March 28.

On Wednesday, the Wittich legal team asked the Montana Supreme Court to overrule Dayton.

Supreme question

On Friday, Billings attorney Gene Jarussi, representing Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Wittich’s motion and to expedite its ruling. Hours later, Supreme Court Justice Patricia Cotter issued an order noting the March 28 trial date and telling Wittich he had to file his argument against Dayton’s decision by March 17.

The allegations against Wittich are similar to those made against several other Montana Republicans who ran in the 2010 primary election. They all received campaign help from Western Tradition Partnership.

In one of those cases, Helena District Judge James Reynolds found that Wesley Prouse “exhibited quid pro quo corruption” in his 2010 Senate District 23 Republican primary election campaign for that seat representing portions of Yellowstone and Musselshell counties. In a Jan. 5 ruling, Reynolds said Prouse “accepted more than $9,000 in corporate expenditures that became in-kind contributions to his campaign.”

Reynolds concluded: “As the quid, Prouse received the appearance of a grass roots campaign for which he did not pay, report or disclose. As the quo, Prouse promised in return unswerving fealty to the corporations carrying out the direct-mail campaign on his behalf ‘100 percent opposition to the forced unionism,’ ‘100 percent support for right to work,’ and ‘100 percent support of WTP’s . agenda.’ “

Billings complaint

The cases against Wittich, Prouse and other candidates started with a complaint filed in 2010 by Debra Bonogofsky, a Billings small business owner, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary against Dan Kennedy of Laurel. Bonogofsky alleged that WTP coordinated with Kennedy on campaign spending and strategy that wasn’t properly reported to the commissioner of political practices. These flyers attacked Bonogofsky who lost to Kennedy by 10 percentage points.

Motl was appointed COPP in June 2013. While investigating Bonogofsky’s complaint, he learned that other candidates had received support from WTP that they had not reported, including Prouse and Wittich.

In March 2014, Motl released his conclusion that Wittich violated the law and filed a civil suit against the legislator. At that time, Wittich told Gazette State Bureau reporter Charles Johnson that all of his 2010 campaign activities were “consistent with the practice and customs and the rules of the time.”

“Motl disregarded long-standing precedent and redefined coordination with a third-party group,” Wittich said then. “I think it’s politically motivated. I think he wants to gag candidates before the primary and general elections.”

Wittich deserves his day in court, but justice won’t be served by delaying this case further. Candidates are campaigning now and 2016 primary voting will commence in two months.

Much more is at stake here than the case against Wittich, whose consequences (if found in violation) would be a court order to file a corrected campaign finance report for 2010 and pay a civil fine. Wittich is challenging the authority of the commissioner to investigate and prosecute campaign violations. If he wins on those points, Montana’s enforcement provisions may be toothless even as its disclosure provisions have been boosted by the 2015 Disclose Act.

Montana law must be strong enough to ensure that transparency rules.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1WpUDpm

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