- Associated Press - Thursday, April 18, 2019

Missoulian, April 16, on the legislative process and backroom dealing:

Warner Rodriguez is brave. He recently testified at a public hearing in Helena, giving an emotional account of his personal experience as a former student of a private residential treatment program for troubled teens. At times in tears, he talked about the humiliation he witnessed and the trauma he endured in a bid to convince state legislators to support a bill that would at long last provide meaningful regulation of these programs.

In stark contrast to Rodriguez’s courageous testimony, the still-unidentified owners of one of these programs pulled Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, aside on a recent Sunday evening. Rather than make a case in public, where it could be discussed in depth and potentially rebutted, they had a private chat and convinced Brown to amend the bill to remove a requirement that the programs develop minimum health and safety standards, which he promptly did the very next day.

That’s the kind of backroom dealing that foments distrust in our legislative system. The full measure of public disgust ought to fall on legislators such as Brown who allow these private meetings to take the place of public debate, and who allow public policy to be written by people in positions of power concerned only with protecting their own special interests. Unbelievably, Brown still refuses even to name the people he met with whose arguments he found so convincing.

This is no way to conduct public business. Legislators cannot be allowed to shirk their duty to represent constituents - all of them. That duty includes affording the people of Montana the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument, to know who is behind those arguments and to contribute their own perspective. Brown’s actions denied them this.

He certainly isn’t the first or only legislator to have his ear bent in a private meeting. But this particular meeting was particularly egregious because the owners of residential programs have been notably quiet on proposed legislation in public - and because the need for meaningful legislative reform is long overdue.

Senate Bill 267, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, and carried in the House by Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, contains several important reforms, but its most significant would terminate the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) under the Department of Labor and Industry, and give the Montana Department of Health and Human Services responsibility to overseeing the programs. Last week, it passed from the House on a vote of 77-22, and was returned to the Senate for final action.

But first, Brown and Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, amended the bill into a version program owners apparently won’t find too objectionable, without regard for the hundreds of teens left at risk. Buttrey’s amendment removed a perfectly reasonable requirement that program employees working with vulnerable youth have “suitability, credentials, training, experience and other qualifications.”

Program owners have successfully thwarted many previous attempts over the years to make their industry more transparent and accountable to the public. So far this session, they helped kill a bill that would have eliminated the so-called “religious exemption” that allows programs claiming a religious affiliation to avoid state oversight, including health and safety regulations.

Despite the disappointing amendments made in the House, SB 267 bill is still worth legislators’ approval, and desperately needed. Currently, the majority of the five-member board charged with regulating these programs are program owners themselves. Unsurprisingly, they have never handed down meaningful consequences in response to complaints against any program, and have operated almost entirely outside the public eye.

Shifting oversight to an independent agency promises to go a long way toward improving this travesty.

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


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, April 16, on Reijo Pera leaving MSU:

The departure of Renee Reijo Pera as vice president of research at Montana State University should not go without note. Her tenure has been a successful one for the university. And it wasn’t easy. She accepted a big challenge when she came to MSU five years ago, and she rose to the occasion. Now it will be an equally difficult task to replace her.

Reijo Pera had big shoes to fill. Tom McCoy had held the position for 15 years and had taken MSU research to new heights, garnering the Carnegie Institute’s highest designation as a research school, something afforded only a hundred or so universities in the nation.

Reijo Pera was recruited from the prestigious Stanford University where she had earned nation attention for her research. In a disappointing development, MSU slipped to Carnegie’s second highest designation as a research institution three years ago. To her great credit, Reijo Pera was undaunted. Working with faculty in MSU’s leading research fields, she was successful in winning back the top status this year - no small feat. Additionally, MSU was one of just two universities singled out for their emphasis on research among undergraduate students. That will be a powerful tool for student recruitment.

MSU research has become a point of pride for the entire state, bringing in $100 million-plus in grants annually. That level of research activity has helped spin off high-tech startup companies that offer the kind of clean industry jobs that help boost the state’s economy in the most positive ways.

Pera will leave for a similar position at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, in August. She is wished the best in her future endeavors. And she will be missed by the MSU community.

But now the attention must be turned to her successor. It was a significant coup when Reijo Pera was lured away from Stanford. The search for her successor will certainly aim for a replacement of similar stature. The stakes for MSU as a whole - and the entire state - are the highest.

May MSU research continue to be as successful under new leadership.

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

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