- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 8, on storage of state officials’ emails:

News that Montana state government agencies have not been preserving and archiving government officials’ emails for decades is nothing short of breathtaking. The practice of routinely deleting officials’ emails is a clear violation of state records archiving law that became known publicly when lawyers attempting to get old emails for a civil court case and were told they didn’t exist.

Repeated requests by journalists for explanations of failing to archive emails were met with contentions that the volume is so high it would be too expensive and the government lacks the capacity to store such volume.

Those excuses fall flat in a digital age in which storage of massive databases is routine. All our most mundane private emails are stored on servers owned by the email services we use. Why should it be any more difficult for state government to do the same?

In an earlier era, the routine destruction of letters and memos dealing with state government policy would have been considered scandalous. Today emails are the equivalent of those older forms of communication and are just as important.

Sorting and storing what must amount to millions of emails accumulated over a period of years may present challenges. But doing anything less is not an option. Citizens have a constitutional right to know what government officials are doing and email communications are some of the most important records of those actions.

It’s apparent there needs to be a sea change in the mindset prevalent in Helena that emails can be routinely deleted. Lawmakers need to ensure all agencies have the expertise and funding necessary to put a reliable and workable archiving system in place. And an interim committee should be tasked with tracking the progress of setting up email archiving systems throughout all of state government.

The philosopher George Santayana was noted for saying that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Those were wise words that should be heeded. But how are we to remember our history if we have no record of it?

Fixing this clearly broken aspect of state government should be among the first orders of business during the Legislature now meeting in Helena.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2juqwj8


The Missoulian, Jan. 8, on updating sexual assault laws:

Missoula has made vital progress in recent years on the subject of sexual assault. Following the launch in 2012 of a federal Department of Justice investigation into local handling of rape reports, the Missoula Police Department, Missoula County Attorney’s Office and University of Montana dove into groundbreaking process of improving education, prevention and response systems, and emerged as national leaders for best practices.

Now it’s time to take that progress to the next level - the state level.

This past week saw the convening of a new legislature, and while new lawmakers were still learning the ropes and all priorities pointed to infrastructure and budget bills, the Senate Judiciary Committee began holding hearings on the first of seven proposed bills designed to improve the state’s sexual assault laws. Each of them warrants serious consideration, and it is heartening to see legislators taking them up early in the session.

The sooner these revisions are approved, the better. Montana’s current sexual assault statutes are woefully outdated, inconsistent and long overdue for an update.

The seven proposed bills are the result of a comprehensive legislative review carried out by the Interim Committee on Law and Justice, with the support of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and assistance from the Montana University System. The bipartisan committee included vice-chair Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula, who is sponsoring two bills on sex crimes: Senate Bills 29 and 30.

SB 29 proposes a number of important revisions to Montana’s laws, such as clarifying the definitions of “mentally incapacitated” and “consent.” It adjusts the penalties for sexual intercourse without consent, and creates a new category of aggravated sexual assault for crimes involving the use of force.

Under current law, prosecutors must prove that a victim was made to submit by force. SB 29 would amend the definition of “consent” to mean “words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.” The section goes on to specify that “overt actions” do not include “a current or previous . sexual relationship or the manner of dress of the person involved.”

Missoula’s county attorney, Montana’s attorney general and a host of victims’ advocates agree that updated definitions are necessary to ensure justice is served.

A few months ago, Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst described current state definitions of consent and incapacitation as “archaic,” while AG Fox said he would support efforts to bring antiquated statutes more in line with modern knowledge about sex crimes. For example, victims of rape often react by “freezing,” rendering them unable to physically or verbally resist their attacker. Yet Montana statutes require physical resistance to prove rape. That’s often unrealistic - and impossible if the victim is unconscious or incapacitated, say, by drugs or alcohol.

Sands’ second bill, SB 30, gives victims under the age of 18 more time to bring their case forward, extending the statute of limitations for prosecution to 20 years.

One of the first sexual assault bills heard by the committee was SD 26, sponsored by another Missoula Democrat and interim committee member, Sen. Sue Malek. This bill would reduce the maximum penalty for sexual assault to five years “when the offender is 18 years of age or younger and the victim is 14 years of age or older,” so long it is a first offense and no force was used.

Malek is also sponsoring SB 22 to revise the laws regarding the termination of parental rights when the child involved is the result of a rape. Current laws allow for termination of parental rights only if the rapist is convicted; unfortunately, not all such cases are brought to trial and result in conviction; there are a host of reasons why a victim or prosecutor might choose not to pursue a trial. This bill would allow a district court to terminate parental rights if convinced by clear and convincing evidence presented at a fact-finding hearing.

Wilsall Republican Sen. Nels Swandal, a former district judge, is also sponsoring a bill related to juvenile offenders; his SB 17 would revise requirements so that juvenile offenders with no history of prior offenses would not have to register as sex offenders, so long as a court determined that registration is not necessary to protect the public.

Over in the House, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, is sponsoring HB 129 to tackle a truly modern challenge: privacy in communications. At least 26 states have outlawed the distribution of sexual explicit pictures and videos without the subject’s consent. Montana is not yet one of them. Smith’s bill would make it a punishable offense to distribute photos or video of an identifiable person engaged in sexual conduct who has not consented to the creation of that content.

And Helena Rep. Jenny Eck, also a Democrat, is having a bill drafted that would close a loophole in Montana’s incest laws that allows children under the age of 18 - but over the age of consent (16) to be considered as complicit in an incest conviction as the adult offender.

None of these bills would in any way lessen the burden of proof needed to convict a rapist. They would, however, arm prosecutors and juries with more precise definitions and an updated understanding of the realities of sexual assault. They are the logical extension of the groundbreaking work done on sexual assault response in Missoula, and will help ensure that victims of rape in Montana will receive real justice.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2jCMa99


The Independent Record, Jan. 8, on Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary:

Along with many Montanans, we were encouraged by President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana to head the Department of the Interior.

Amid a sea of appointments whose values seem to contradict with the very departments they were nominated to lead, here is a man who has stood up to protect the federal public lands the Department of the Interior oversees. Zinke has repeatedly bucked his own party’s leaders to vote against transferring ownership of federal lands, an aspect of the Republican platform that is abhorred in Montana, and he has even gone so far as to resign as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the GOP’s position on this issue.

And he is a Montanan! Despite the partisan attacks on his residency that cropped up during his latest campaign because he spends part of the year with family in California, Zinke is more Montanan than many in our state and has an intimate knowledge of what is important to the people who live here.

But now we’re starting to question whether Zinke even wants to maintain his relationship with Montana if the Senate confirms his appointment to Trump’s cabinet, or if he will treat our state like an ex he left for someone new and more exciting. Because ever since Zinke and Trump began talking about his nomination, it seems our state’s lone U.S. representativehas been paying less attention to the people who re-elected him to Congress two months ago.

After Zinke’s team sent out a press release in late November announcing that his wife Lolita would join Trump’s Veterans Administration landing team, his communications director declined to respond to questions about the appointment and denied press access to Zinke and his wife.

The response was the same after Zinke’s office announced the appointment of Aaron Flint to manage the congressman’s Montana staff in December.

On the day Trump officially nominated Zinke for Interior secretary last month, our congressman would not comment to our reporter beyond the statements included in a press release issued by the president-elect’s transition team.

Now Zinke is under fire in Montana for his vote on a rules change that would make it easier to transfer federal lands to state ownership, which seems to directly contradict the values he held during his last two years as our congressman. And when we reached out to give Zinke the opportunity to explain why he voted the way he did, all his communications director would say is that his position on public lands has not changed, ignoring additional questions and access to the congressman yet again.

Montanans deserve more from their leaders than carefully crafted statements massaged by marketing experts. They deserve to hear from their elected leaders directly and to have their questions answered, especially on something as big as Zinke’s recent vote on public lands.

Zinke has done a lot of good for Montana, and his appointment as Interior secretary could be a great thing for our state and the West. But only if he stays true to his Montana values and the Montana voters who set him on this path to become eighth in the United States presidential line of succession.

Montanans still need you, Rep. Zinke. Will you continue to be there for them?

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2jlfpcv

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