- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Billings Gazette, Dec. 12, on impartial judges in Montana:

Independence is so important in judges that Montana can restrict what the state’s nonpartisan judicial candidates can do in their election campaigns.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that state interest last week, specifically affirming state’s judicial conduct standard that bars judicial candidates from seeking and using party endorsements.

The Circuit Court’s affirmation of an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon of Montana got only a brief news article when it was announced. But Montanans should know that the protecting the state’s nonpartisan judicial election process has great significance. This case is one of many that have challenged our election laws with the purpose of creating no-holds-barred opportunities to influence Montana elections.

Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee summed up the issue: “Recognizing that mixing politics with judging could lead to injustice, Montana has prohibited all judges and candidates for judicial office from engaging in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.”

The Montana Code of Judicial Conduct provides that a judge or judicial candidate shall not seek, accept, or use endorsements from a political organization, or partisan or independent non-judicial office-holder or candidate.

“Montana is not alone in restricting the political speech of judges and judicial candidates,” Bybee wrote. “As of 2012, 39 (states) have judicial elections, and nearly all have enacted laws to treat judicial elections differently from political elections.”

A friend of the court brief filed in defense of the Montana rule by retired Montana Supreme Court Justice William Leaphart, on behalf of six individual Supreme Court justices, said that a judge who is elected after having endorsed the Democratic or Republican platform is “in a real quandary.” ”In resolving legal issues, a judge should not have one eye on the platform of a political party whose endorsement the judge expressly sought used or accepted.”

Mark French, the candidate who challenged the judicial conduct rule, ran in 2014 for justice of the peace in Sanders County against an incumbent who had found him guilty of a $20 seat belt violation. French, a Tea Party supporter, maintained that the state seat belt law is unconstitutional.

During his justice of the peace campaign, French received the endorsement of the Sanders County Republican Committee, which was headed by his wife. The law allows political parties to endorse judicial candidates because of the 9th Circuit’s ruling in a 2012 case initiated by the Sanders County Republican Committee.

French also wanted to take action himself to get and publicize endorsements from prominent Republicans. That’s where the Montana judicial rule and the Appeals Court said no. Political parties are free to endorse nonpartisan judicial candidates, but the candidates themselves can’t seek partisan endorsements.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, whose office successfully defended the state standard, said he is pleased with the court’s decision: “The people of Montana decided our judicial elections should be nonpartisan, and the court’s decision respects and protects the will of the people.”

The 9th Circuit noted that French intends to run again in 2018. Under Montana law, he cannot seek partisan endorsements during the election and neither can any other Montana judicial candidates. That’s key to keeping Montana courts impartial and independent.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2iV4NCN

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Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Dec. 12, on county joining opioid lawsuit:

Litigation is rarely the best way to settle differences. It’s expensive and the outcome is far from certain. But Gallatin County commissioners were wise to opt into litigation that seeks damages from pharmaceutical companies for their role in the nation’s opioid epidemic.

History will look back on this crisis with a certain amount of astonishment. The U.S. death toll from opioid overdoses reached 33,000 in 2015, about 90 every day. That’s as many as died by firearms that year and nearly as many as died in car accidents. And the victims come from every walk of life - from those living in inner-city poverty to the well-off professionals in suburbia and their children.

But the opioid epidemic wasn’t inflicted on us by violent gangs, careless gun owners or intoxicated drivers on the highway. Nor can it be blamed on the avarice of big tobacco companies.

It started from within the health care industry itself - large pharmaceutical companies who oversold the benefits of opioid painkillers and the health care providers who bought those benefits without realizing the risks that come from overprescribing these drugs. And it was helped along by drug cartels more than happy to provide cheaper, though often lethal, substitutes for prescription painkillers - heroin and the far more potent synthetic drug fentanyl.

Negotiating for compensation from the drug companies would be fruitless. Admitting liability would be hugely expensive for them, and they are certain to fight very aggressively against legal efforts to hold them accountable.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed suit against the drug companies early last week. Gallatin County commissioners took on legal counsel and joined a suit filed by Cascade County in advance of the AG’s action to ensure the county would receive a share of any settlement that may eventually be reached.

State and local government taxpayers incur much of the expense for this epidemic, through legal costs for prosecuting drug cases and Medicaid costs for emergency and addiction treatment for low-income victims. Local courts alone incur more than $100,000 annually for this problem. And those taxpayers deserve to be reimbursed if the drug companies are found to be culpable.

Signing on to the opioid litigation now is the best way to make sure that happens for the citizens of Gallatin County.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2iUKMMw

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Missoulian, Dec. 10, on downtown Missoula development:

One of the most significant projects ever planned for downtown Missoula promises to develop a prime piece of riverfront real estate into a thriving new center of commerce. If these promises are fulfilled, the completed project will pack an economic punch felt throughout the entire city.

Without losing sight of those broad benefits, now is the time for Missoulians to look closely at the details of the Riverfront Triangle deal now before the City Council, paying particular attention to the city’s role in what would become the largest conference center in the region.

In November, members of the City Council approved an agreement concerning the conference center, as well as a proposed hotel and underground parking garage on the property. Within the next few weeks, they will be considering additional aspects of the conference center deal.

Under the terms of the current agreement, the city of Missoula would buy the conference center for an estimated $16.5 million while the developers, Missoula-based Hotel Fox Partners, would still own the land beneath it. The city would also buy most of the parking garage, which would provide more than 400 spaces in an underground facility, for $8.3 million at most, with the owners of the hotel leasing some of the spaces.

Parking Facility Bonds, which would be paid with revenue from parking fees, would help pay for the parking garage. But the city would primarily cover its portion of the costs with the help of tax increment financing, or TIF.

This is the method by which additional property taxes generated by rising property values is re-invested back into the community in such a way as to further increase values. Using TIF money means these purchases will not have any effect on the general fund - or on city taxpayers.

However, dedicating TIF money to this project does mean those funds can’t be used for other projects. And it does not address the city’s costs once the conference center is completed. It’s entirely fair to ask whether the city of Missoula wants to be on the hook for a conference center, and if so, how much it will cost to operate and maintain.

According to a comprehensive U.S. Government Accountability Office report published nearly 20 years ago, “convention centers are generally not expected to make a profit on their operations or cover their construction costs,” and in fact, often operate at a loss. However, they also almost always bring measurable economic benefits to the wider community. The report’s findings have been confirmed by dozens of studies since, and the city of Missoula and Hotel Fox Partners have market studies pegging the local demand for a center.

The expectations are that it will get a great deal of use. The center will be the largest venue of its kind between Billings and Spokane, with the capacity to seat 1,000 visitors at a time, and also will have the flexibility to host multiple events at one time. Yet less than a year ago, the city was presented with a plan to build a center nearly half the size of the current project. That concept would have resulted in a 29,000-square-foot center estimated at about $6.25 million. Just what changed since January for developers to essentially double the size of the center?

The deal calls for Missoula to buy furniture, fixtures and equipment for the center, while the developers cover any non-routine repairs and maintenance. Hotel Fox Partners would lease the center for 25 years, with the option to renew for two additional 10-year periods.

The city would sell the land to the developers for $2.3 million, but the developers would receive a credit of up to 40 percent for the land occupied by the conference center and parking lot. Additionally, if the developers choose to exchange another portion of the property for additional parking in the future, it may receive credit of up to $1.25 million.

Hotel Fox Partners been working with the city on this project, with close involvement from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, since 2011. Its vision for the Riverfront Triangle property includes three stories of condominiums atop the seven-story hotel, as well as a mix of affordable housing, offices, restaurants, retail space, a park and a public plaza. The high-density development will ultimately represent a $150 million investment on a site that has seen decades of inaction.

The first phase of the project calls for an $80 million building to house the hotel and condos, next to the 60,000-square-foot conference center, to be built on what is now a vacant parking lot covering less than 2 acres of the 7-acre Riverfront Triangle property. The site roughly follows the lines formed by the Clark Fork River, West Front Street and Orange Street.

On their end of the deal, the developers are assuming a great deal of the financial risk traditionally borne by the property owners. While that’s worth noting, it’s also worth pointing out that the city’s portion of the risk is still murky. In a worst-case scenario, what kind of financial burden would the city bear? In any case, what are the direct benefits to city taxpayers? These questions should be answered in detail before city councilors sign off on any more agreements.

The developers have a little less than 18 months to secure the necessary building permits and are hoping to break ground within the next two years.

In the meantime, another agreement regarding the conference center is expected to be finalized within the next couple of months. There’s no need for undue delay in considering this agreement. There is plenty of reason, however, to spend the next few weeks holding a very public discussion delving into the particulars of this very important development project.

Despite high interest, the Riverfront Triangle property has sat empty for so long, many Missoulians may be doubtful a final moment of decision has actually arrived. Make no mistake: this is a critical time to pay close attention and demand the best possible deal for the city.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2iU0Qya

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