The Square

Several readers have stated that the Rob Quist campaign signs are not supposed to be on any “public” property, period. Regardless of my personal feelings about political signs on public property, I feel the information those allegations are based on may not say what they think it says. I certainly disagree that it is as cut and dried a discussion as several of the more strident commentators have stated.

“On this point, Montana law is unambiguous:”

Unambiguous: not open to more than one interpretation.


(1) Signs promoting political candidates or issues shall be placed on private property only [emphasis added] and cannot be placed without the permission of the property owner. Political signs must comply with sign standards found in 75-15-113, MCA, and ARM 18.6.231, unless otherwise specified in this rule.

(2) Political signs must not:

(a) be placed on or allow any portion to intrude in the public right-of-way or on public property [emphasis added]; and…”

First, let us discuss the cited “law”. Title 75, MCA is Environmental Protection, Chapter 15 is Landscape Management. 75-15-102, (Policy) states “it shall be the policy of this state that the erection and maintenance of outdoor advertising in areas adjacent to the right of way of the interstate and primary systems within this state shall be regulated in accordance with the terms of this part. [emphasis added] ARM 18.6.231 and 18.6.246 are specific to the Department of Transportation Right of Way Bureau.

The referenced MCA statutes regulate outdoor advertising in a specific area, the right of way of the Interstate System. I found ambiguity in the question of if these statutes even applied to the area the Quist signs were displayed. They certainly appear to be out of the right of way of 1st Avenue North. So does the Department of Transportation really determine the legality of any political sign, on any public property, anywhere? That hardly seems reasonable, so I did a little investigative work.

Amazingly, it appears that the Commission on Political Practice has some insight into this question of advertising on public property. The allegation of no sign on public property, anywhere, ever, does not appear to be supported by this Commission On Political Practice advisory opinion.

“The Butte-Silver Bow Civic Center is a public facility which is available for lease for “local sporting events and concerts as well as trade shows and political events”. The Civic Center also has advertising space available for lease around the arena. Here, the City County has made a determination that the public facility and advertising space is available to interested parties who are willing to lease the space at the going rate when being used for commercial purposes regardless of the type of event. Under the facts you provided, the display of a political advertisement during a basketball tournament is an appropriate commercial use of the public space so long as it was leased by the candidate or committee at a fair market rate.” [emphasis added]

Stating that all political signs, on any public property, are illegal based on the cited statutes is simply false.

Additionally, we have the question of whether Tracy Houck, Executive Director of Paris Gibson Square, did anything wrong. First, there is absolutely no evidence that the Executive Director had anything to do with the Quist rental. Second, even if she did, she was not acting as a public employee, she was acting as a representative of Paris Gibson Square. But, even if she was acting as a public employee, she still did nothing wrong.

“A public employee performing duties consistent with direction of the governmental body, through contract or employment, in leasing public facilities to a committee or a candidate is not soliciting support for the particular candidate. What the governmental entity is generating is revenue to offset the cost of the services provided to the members of the community.”

With all the complaints going around of public funding for Paris Gibson Square, people should be happy the museum is generating revenue. In fact, as a public facility which rents out rooms for functions, it would be discriminatory for them to not rent it out based on the political status of the rentor.

However, to cheer up those that are committed to finding improper behavior, perhaps you need to look to our own City Code.

Title 17, Chapter 60, sign code: – Prohibited signs and exceptions: The following signs are prohibited within the City of Great Falls except as exempted in of this code:

A. Signs located on public property, except light pole banners for community events and authorized Central Avenue banners.

But wait…

Does a municipality really have the right to determine the use of all “public” property within its boundaries? County property within the City limits? State property within the City limits? Or does the City Sign Code regulate only public property under its control? One thing I do know from experience is that in areas where City law and State law meet, State wins. Just try to erect a sign on 10th Avenue South complying with only the City Sign Code, and see how fast the Department of Transportation sends you a nastygram.

Does the City of Great Falls really have any jurisdiction over the actions of the School Board and the property they own and manage, or Cascade County and the property they own and manage? Especially if it has an additional layer of protection in the School/County/PGS lease. Additionally, Paris Gibson Square is not used as a “public” facility, and has not been for decades.

So, yes, there is just a wee bit of ambiguity regarding this matter. Please do not take this to mean that I personally support Tracy Houck, or Rob Quist, in any way shape or form. I just feel if one is going to state a certain activity is illegal, there should be real, credible support for that statement.

People may feel it is inappropriate for a non profit to use the facilities in such a manner. That is a personal opinion, however, and not a fact.

May 23, 2017

About Author

Aspen Northerner Aspen Northerner is a Great Falls resident who just gets frustrated by the limited journalistic capabilities of the local media.


  1. Rick Tryon says:

    Citizens demanding accountability, honesty and integrity in our community, expecting that local public officials who spend our hard earned tax dollars should have to play by the rules really shouldn’t be referred to as “those that are committed to finding improper behavior”. That’s pretty close to accusing citizen activists of being on a witch hunt.

    And as legally astute as your opinions are here, the real issue that should be addressed is whether political activism by PGS and it’s director, board or employees has reached a level sufficient to warrant a hard look by the IRS regarding the Squares 501(C)(3) status.

  2. Gregg Smith says:


  3. Jeni Dodd says:

    Aspen Northerner’s statement: “…those that are committed to finding improper behavior…” is highly offensive. So the gloves are off.

    Northerner equates citizens vigilant of government as being “committed to finding improper behavior.” Perhaps Northerner missed civics class.

    It is more than a right, it is an OBLIGATION for citizens to be vigilant about their government. Lest you think these concerns about Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art have nothing to do with government, it IS a government issue because PGSMOA receives funds from Cascade County and are slated to receive federal funds from the Community Block Development Grant program—government money.

    After the initial shock of Northerner’s witch hunt type accusation, I was floored by the absurd logic of the rest of the piece.

    Northerner tries to distance Houck from involvement with the following, “Additionally, we have the question of whether Tracy Houck, Executive Director of Paris Gibson Square, did anything wrong. First, there is absolutely no evidence that the Executive Director had anything to do with the Quist rental.”

    Well, someone at PGSMOA took the rental. Apparently Northerner doesn’t understand that the Executive Director is ultimately responsible for staff’s actions, correct or incorrect.

    Regarding political signs at Paris Gibson Square Museum, Northerner cites MT DOT Rule 18.6.246:“Signs promoting political candidates or issues shall be placed on private property only…” and then Northerner goes on to assert that PGSMOA is not public but private, as evidenced by Northerner’s statement, “Additionally, Paris Gibson Square is not used as a “public” facility, and has not been for decades.”

    Really? If PGSMOA is a PRIVATE facility, then why do I support PGSMOA through my property tax dollars? I shouldn’t have to support a PRIVATE facility with tax money.

    If PGSMOA isn’t a PUBLIC facility, then why are they competing for PUBLIC FACILITY PROJECT CDBG funds? Yep, that’s the title of the program.

    I’ve heard other folks characterize the PGSMOA public/private question as the following—it’s public facility, but a private rental when rented by a candidate.

    A point to consider regarding that—the political rally was open to the public, not private like a wedding or other private party. It seems that a rental for a public event would not temporarily change the character of the property to private, as it might for a wedding or private party.

    Interestingly enough, Northerner’s assertion that PGSMOA is a private facility contradicts an earlier statement by Northerner, “In fact, as a PUBLIC facility which rents out rooms for functions…” (emphasis added)

    Northerner seems s bit confused.

    Also, Northerner’s citation of the Commissioner of Political Practices advisory opinion is just that—an ADVISORY OPINION (which by definition is a non-binding interpretation of law). It’s not a decision in a court of law. The difference is important. It’s also an opinion on only one issue at PGSMOA.

    Northerner also commented: “People may feel it is inappropriate for a non profit to use the facilities in such a manner (political signs). That is a personal opinion, however, and not a fact.”

    No, it’s the opinion of the Internal Revenue Service, Revenue Ruling 2007-41:

    “….for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization….”

    Houck’s involvement in politics while in her role as both PGSMOA Executive Director and City Commissioner is evident in the following Facebook posting, entitled “Women’s March Bus GF to Helena
    Public · Hosted by Tracy Houck Great Falls City Commission”:

    PGSMOA is listed as the place to buy bus tickets to the Women’s March in Helena. The Women’s March was a clearly a political event; it advocates for certain political positions and policies. This is, in effect, brings politics into a PGSMOA, a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, which is a huge no-no according to IRS Code.

    Houck also posted this as City Commissioner. How appropriate is it for a supposed non-partisan commissioner to promote the Women’s March with associated its political agendas?

    Mont. Code Ann. § 13-35-226(4) provides:
    “A public employee may not solicit support for or opposition to any POLITICAL COMMITTEE, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue while on the job or at the place of employment,” (emphasis added). It could be argued that a City Commissioner’s place of employment is inclusive of the commissioner’s official Facebook page, which included a link and information about this event. Do you want to argue that the Women’s March is not an political committee activity?

    But hey, I’m just “committed to finding improper behavior” right? What do I know? I’m not “legally astute.”

    Stick a fork in me—I’m done—with Great Falls AND this blog.

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