Fake News – Great Falls Tribune

From a front-page, AP story in the Tribune this morning on Trump’s budget: “The Trump administration’s budget plan for 2018 assumes that a mix of sharp spending and tax cuts can both shrink the deficit and fuel economic growth of 3 percent a year — a level it hasn’t achieved in more than a dozen years.” [Emphasis added]

“First, the budget isn’t being cut. Indeed, Trump is proposing that federal spending increase from $4.06 trillion this year to $5.71 trillion in 2027. Second, government spending will grow by an average of almost 3.5 percent per year over the next 10 years.” Dan Mitchell

Hmmm. Someone isn’t telling the truth.

CDBG Records

In an earlier piece, we pointed out that City Commissioner, Tracy Houck, complained about an alleged conflict of interest by a member of the Community Development Council, which allocates CDBG funds among various local government entities, charities, and other groups.

Houck had gotten wind of the fact that a particular individual had down voted the Paris Gibson Square’s application and complained about that fact to City staff. (Houck made this complaint as a City Commissioner which was pretty clearly improper, and resulted in Houck’s receiving a letter from City Attorney, Sara Sexe, directing Houck to recuse herself from further proceedings on the application.) Of course, Houck ‘won,’ and the applications were reconsidered and Paris Gibson Square received some money.

I am addressing one minor bit of the story. After she complained, Houck was given scoring sheets and other information about the Community Development Council’s process. Some suggested this was “inside information,” but City Staff told me it was public record. So I requested it.

Here is the February 23, 2017, scoring sheet, the April 3, 2017, scoring sheet, and related audio files of the meetings (one, two, and three).

Comment Of The Day

The Tribune finally caught up to the Tracy Houck, CDBG funding story, but the reporter didn’t have nuthin’ on this commenter:

Robert Tyler

Great Falls, Montana

How can Houck claim to be personally handling this issue because of concern about the privacy protections of a male employee while in tandem exposing the sexual harassment complaint and negative performance evaluations of her former employee Wolfe?

This action by Houck has a retaliatory smell to it, I would guess whoever handles PGS or GFPS legal defenses wishes Houck would have delegated and the delegate brought it to light with a little less public vetting of the details.

How does Sexe saying that the re-evaluation by the CDC was required until the PGS allocation was not zero make the process fair? Correcting an alleged anti-PGS bias by removing Wolfe yet leaving in place other CDC board members who were contacted on the behalf of a sitting commissioner to complain about the results does nothing but create a pro-PGS bias. The whole process stinks of suspicion due to Houck’s mishandling of all of her positions and the city attorney’s pro-PGS allocation statement. I see no reason why Sexe thinks the city would be at risk of PGS litigation due to the improper behavior of the PGS director. It seems the best result would be for the CDC results to be tossed as spoiled and either a new board established or the remaining commissioners come to their own conclusions.

Burrow’s sentiment of not wanting anything to do with the “backroom deals” is the proper and adult way out. Eliminating the PGS allocation for this year because of the improper actions of their director revolving around an ex-PGS employee is proper. Houck should have vetted Wolfe during the Jan 17, 2017 commission meeting when Houck voted on new appointments, had opportunity to see Wolfe’s name and was given the public opportunity to comment. Instead Houck remained quiet and voted to confirm committee members who would later vote to allocate her employer money.

Of Smoke…And Fire

On May 15, 2017, I had the opportunity to sit down with City Manager, Greg Doyon, City Attorney, Sara Sexe, and City Planning Director, Craig Raymond, to discuss City Commissioner Tracy Houck’s involvement in the allocation of CDBG funds to the Paris Gibson Square where she serves as the Executive Director. Some takeaways:

The March 20, 2017, letter from the City Attorney to Commissioner Houck warning her away from conflicts of interest was hand delivered to Houck after the March 20, 2017, Work Session where Houck was clearly involved in the CDBG funding discussion, but before that day’s City Commission meeting.

There was a meeting between Mayor Kelly, Houck, and others to discuss the conflicts, and she has deferred from involvement since then.

The information that was provided to Houck regarding the Community Development Council’s deliberations and scoring of competing applications is public record and was requested by at least one other agency representative besides Houck. I have requested this information from the City, and will post it when received.

The City Attorney is working on a disclosure form and process for outside interests.

First, there should have been a tight, well-designed process in place already given the number of potential conflicts of interest in a small town. However, if closing the barn door after the cows leave was an uncommon phenomenon, there wouldn’t be a handy phrase to describe it.

Second, while Houck has apparently stopped participation after her conflict was noted by staff, this is not an exoneration. She has an independent responsibility to understand the rules that govern her service, and to follow them. I would be very surprised to learn that she was not given some sort of orientation about City rules and requirements; I remember a detailed orientation and I was only a Neighborhood Council member.

This is the second time, then, that Commissioner Houck finds herself in a position where the best thing that can be said about her conduct is that she was very careless. I have a hard time believing that there is someone who would not understand that it is inappropriate and unethical to communicate with the administrator of CDBG funds on behalf of an applicant agency while wearing her City Commission hat. In addition, I found her gossiping on Facebook about a local business person in a matter involving the City Commission. Commissioner Houck should recognize that she needs to dial it back, know the rules, follow the rules and, as one of my friends always said, just stick to the knittin’.

Oh the Humanities…

One of my biggest concerns about the SJW craziness on college campuses is the current trend to conflate speech, even offensive speech, with violence. Mahler Mali does a great job describing this trend and its sources in this piece. He argues that the humanities, and especially the English majors, lack academic rigor and instead spend (waste?) their time inculcating anti-freedom ideals in their students:

Activist professors incapable of surviving in the more arduous disciplines (see: Autoethnography) are the most vociferous in limiting academic freedom of others. Given all of this, it is no surprise that Baer holds the views that he does. Neither is it surprising that we have professors of English publishing op-eds which ask for limiting speech, such as Aaron R. Hanlon a professor of English at Colby College in New Republic or John Patrick Leary a professor of English at Wayne State University in Inside Higher Education. 

Mali points out that one of the great accomplishments of the Enlightenment was the freeing of speech in order to avoid actual violence:

Words are not violence. We brought Western civilization through a crucible of ideological warfare to establish the norms of differentiating speech from physically harmful actions. Now some operators in the humanities want to drag us back there. What the “snowflakes” and Baer get right about free speech is absolutely nothing.

I recommend you read the whole thing.

And, lest someone want to defend limitations on “hate speech,” please be reminded that such a thing does not exist, at least not in constitutional jurisprudence.

We might want to put our heads under the pillows or, better yet, just laugh at these people. But remember that these students who claim “harm” and “violence” from speech, and who claim there is no such thing as objective truth (tell that to an airplane), will soon be lawyers, leaders and, gulp, federal judges.

City Attorney Weighs In On Conflicts of Interest

I have to admit that when I read Phil’s piece about City Commissioner, Tracy Houck and CDBG funding, I was a little lost. I struggled through it a few times, and really never knew what happened other than the Community Development Council (“CDC”), which allocates CDBG funding, originally voted to recommend to the City Commission that the Paris Gibson Square’s grant request not be funded.  Then, apparently there was some sort of inquiry by Commissioner Houck, the vote was changed, and now the CDC has recommended that PGS receive about $27,0000.00 in CDBG funds.

A March 14, 2017, letter from Commissioner Houck to Craig Raymond (the last two pages of this linked .pdf file), the City Planning and Community Development Director, sheds some light on this. In the letter, Houck says that the CDC Chairperson, Harmony Wolfe, was somehow affiliated with PGS (it’s hard to be sure because Houck says in her letter that Wolfe was both an employee and an independent contractor), but left that affiliation under less than amicable circumstances. Apparently Wolfe alleges sexual harassment against an unnamed PGS employee and intends to pursue it in litigation. Houck suggests that PGS and Great Falls Public School staff investigated these allegations, and determined them to be false. I do not believe they have been adjudicated by any independent finder of fact. Houck alleges a “vendetta” by Wolfe, and asserts she should recuse herself for such conflicts of interest.

This letter was on PGS letterhead and was written by Houck as the Executive Director of PGS.

A day earlier, though, Commissioner Houck had emailed Raymond, City Commissioner Bill Bronson, City Manager Greg Doyon, and another member of planning staff (This email can be found in Phil’s post). In this email, Houck complained of conflicts of interest by Mayor Bob Kelly and a NeighborWorks staff person. She makes only a vague reference to Wolfe, despite the fact that the following day she accuses her of a “vendetta.” This email was clearly written as a City Commissioner.

Then, apparently, based on Houck’s complaints of conflicts of interest, on March 16, Greg Doyon emailed Houck and said, in essence, she and Wolfe would have to recuse themselves, and there would be a re-vote to see if PGS would get its funding. It did. (GFDA was also funded, NeighborWorks apparently was not. See p. 68, here).

What helped to figure this out is City Attorney, Sara Sexe’s letter to Commissioner Houck from March 20, 2017 (pages 1 and 2), instructing Houck that she should “not vote or participate in any Commission action or discussion” related to the CDBG grant process.

So, roughly here is what I think we know: Wolfe apparently voted on grant allocations and according to Houck, down voted the PGS application. According to Houck, Wolfe had a conflict of interest in so voting. So Houck contacted the City, to complain about Wolfe’s participation, but was Houck doing so a conflict of interest?

As a result of Houck’s allegations, there was a revote with Wolfe not participating, and under the revote, the CDC awarded PGS its grant money. I can’t suggest that the PGS as an entity should have been unable to complain of a potential conflict simply because its Executive Director is a City Commissioner. Maybe a different PGS employee should have made the Complaint. But this whole thing leaves a number of questions.

First, in her March 13 email to City staff, Houck complains of a conflict of interest on the part of Mayor Kelly. Why was this question not raised earlier, or did she only care when PGS wasn’t funded? And then PGS gets its funding, and we don’t hear another word about that conflict. Does it seem as though Commissioner Houck had more interest in making sure her employer got funding than she did in protecting the public from a conflict of interest that she alleged? (I am certainly not alleging a conflict on the Mayor’s part–I don’t know the details of his relationship with GFDA.)

Second, Houck definitely participated in the discussions related to CDBG contrary to Sexe’s admonitions at the March 20, 2017, work session. Sexe’s letter was dated March 20 and was noted to have been hand delivered. Can we assume it was hand delivered before the meeting? If so, it seems Houck ignored the conflict of interest. I don’t know when she received the letter.

Third, the March 13, 2017, email is concerning. She wrote to City staff about her employer’s business as a City Commissioner. Who was she representing, the voters or Paris Gibson Square?

Here is the City’s Ethical Code. I guess you can be the judge.

Last Question: Where is the local media on this questions?


Too Many Casinos

Many people say the City must do something about too many casinos in this town.

The first thing I ask an anti-casino person who drinks alcohol is this: have you ever protested a new bar?


Oh, so it’s the other guy’s vice you aren’t comfortable with. Because I can make an argument that alcohol causes and has caused at least as many problems as the anti-casino folks say gambling causes, but so many people are fine with alcohol, as opposed to gambling, because they like to drink.

If you listen to people in this town, or read comments at the Tribune website or on Facebook, you would think that Great Falls, alone in Montana, is simply overrun with gambling. The facts do not bear that out.

Look at the Montana Gambling Control Division’s 2015-2016 Biannual Report, and you will find statistics for what are apparently the 19 largest cities in Montana. Turn to the appendix, and you can see how much gambling there is available in Great Falls compared to the rest of the state.

The average of the 19 largest communities shows that there are 23.99 gaming machines per 1000 residents. In Great Falls, the number is 23.978 gaming machines per 1000 residents. In other words, we are slightly less than average. Billings, the largest city in the state has 23.53 machines per 1000 residents, slightly lower than us. Helena is at 22.37 per 1000, while Kalispell is 29.16 and Whitefish is 25.59.

Bozeman and Missoula both have fewer machines per 1000 residents than we do, a fact that might be explained by the additional fact that a significant portion of their population is made up of young college students who lack the money to gamble. (Of course, if you import 13,000 to 16,000 college age kids into Great Falls every year, we probably wouldn’t be having an economic development discussion either.) Or, maybe those towns are growing past their license quota, and Great Falls never did?

The point, though, is not that Great Falls has too many machines or too few, but merely that arguments you read suggesting that we are some kind of outlier gambling mecca are simply false.

Those same arguments also often point to 10th Avenue South, “Holy cow, you drive down tenth and it’s just casino after casino.” Again, this is not fair argument; put another way, this is by design. You might recall back in the early Oughts that the City spent $80,000.00 on a new zoning code. Well, this code so restricted the available locations for licenses, 10th Avenue South became one of the few places in town where one could even open a bar or casino. So, don’t be surprised that the casinos cluster on 10th. Instead, blame your then-City Commission.

One more point: If the City Commission limits zoning due to the possibility of casinos, and if that’s because the Commissioners just don’t like gambling, the City Commission is not doing its job. You see, gambling is legal. The mere fact that someone is engaging in a legal activity that you do not prefer should not even be considered in this discussion. What if your occupation is next? I would suggest that the majority of casinos are operated by local people, including me and my partners. I was born and raised here, and invested with family members in an industry that our family has been involved in for several generations.

The City has limited the locations of casinos. The City has limited the signage of casinos. The City cannot simply overrule state law.

If you don’t like gaming, your issue is with the legislature, not the City Commission. Otherwise, I think you should stop demonizing your fellow citizens who have invested their money in a legal industry.


I thought the following comment on the City Commission post, below, was worth elevating:

Don I would agree with you. I was there last night, I’ve been researching this and I think the city’s got something up their sleeves. Ordinance 4138 is far too inclusive. So is Ordinance 3149. There’s more to come too, with City Attorney Cik on his “quest.”

A quest that I believe exists to re-write the Muni Code to give the commissioners more power. There’s more to come at the next commission meeting, with Ordinance 3154. My understanding is that one will change the public notice of competitive bidding process to eliminate publication in a newspaper. It appears to give them the opportunity to posts in any manner they see fit.

Back to Ordinance 3148 which passed last night. The way it reads, someone could be banned from city property for ONE YEAR for ANY violation of the ANY part of the municipal code, the Montana Code Annotated OR IF THE CITY MANAGER OR HIS DESIGNEE DECIDES YOU’VE BEEN DISORDERLY OR ABUSIVE.

The poster claims the city gave mostly sensible arguments for Ordinance 3148. There’s no sensible argument for an ordinance that gives this extreme amount of power. It’s bad enough that the city included the whole Municipal Code and the MCA in this ordinance. The way it reads now, you could be banned from city property if you, for example, are caught of driving with a cell phone, although city officials will tell you they don’t intend to use it that way. I just can’t trust their word.

The “or” clause in this ordinance is particularly troubling.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see the many ways the city could abuse your constitutional rights with this one. It’s especially scary that the City Manager or his designee has carte blanche to determine the definition of disorderly or abusive. City officials claimed they’ll use the disorderly conduct definition of the Montana Code Annotated as a “guideline.” Their claims are only words; there’s no requirement in the ordinance that they keep their word.

According to the Great Falls Tribune, January 17, 2017, the ordinance came about because of an incident at the library.
The proposed amendment was prompted by an incident that occurred in October, when a library employee was struck in the arm by an unruly patron.

From the Tribune: ““There was a man in the library who appeared to be sleeping,” library manager Kathy Mora said Tuesday. “Our written policies state you can’t be sleeping in the library. One of our staff members approached him. We do not touch any patrons and we do not get too close to them. She attempted to wake him, and it took her a couple of attempts by speaking to him. When he awoke he jumped out of his chair and hit her on the arm.”

Mora said library staff immediately called the police, but the man had left the area before officers arrived.

“We did not know his name at that time, and they could not located him,” Mora said. “She (the library employee) declined to press charges.”
Mora said the man was banned from the library premises after he returned two weeks later. While the proposed city trespass ordinance would not have measurably altered the outcome of the incident in October, Mora described it as “another tool that we can use on city property when these types of occasions arise.””

In both the first reading of the ordinance in January and again last night, much was made about this library incident. Yet, as the Tribune article suggests, the ordinance wouldn’t have made much difference. So then, why is the city using this incident as their proverbial last straw? Doesn’t Great Falls already have public nuisance and loitering laws that would have applied in this case? If it was really about the library incident, why wasn’t the ordinance limited to problems on city property? Why does it include all of Great Falls ordinances and all of the MCA? There’s really no reason to be this imprecise when it comes to the law.

I’ve seen some city commission meetings get a bit disorderly. Are they going to ban people from city commission meetings when they feel they’re disorderly (i.e. saying something they don’t like)? Oh wait, the city already tried that. Remember the Mayor Stebbins-Susan Overfield fiasco? The city paid a cool half-million for violating Overfield’s rights. You would think that since the city already bought the t-shirt on that one, they’d be a bit more careful about an ordinance that could chill free speech and public assembly. Except now, with the passing of Ordinance 3148, they can throw you out for a whole year. Things could get interesting.

City officials further postulated that ordinance is required because unlike private property where law enforcement can ask trespassers to leave, police can’t ask someone to leave city property.

This idea was again echoed by City Commissioner Tracy Houck, who claimed the ordinance was necessary for public safety for people using city property. She told the room that her son is involved in many activities at the Rec Center and if there’s trouble there, the police currently can’t force anyone to leave.

Really Commissioner Houck? Really City of Great Falls? That isn’t my experience. I’ve witnessed police force people to leave several city properties—including the parks hosting Alive at Five, Elk’s Riverside Park and the skatepark, so that argument is invalid.

There was some talk at the meeting about an appeal process for someone who feels they’ve been unjustly banned from city property. It didn’t appear as part of the ordinance language and in my quick perusal of the Municipal Code, I haven’t found anything remotely related. If there’s someone out there that knows where I would find the appeal process for being banned from city property, please respond as soon as possible. I’m probably going to need it 😉

On Anonymity

A number of people, including the target of the piece, Tammy Lacey, took issue with the fact that a contributor to this blog posted anonymously about Tammy Lacey in a piece about her comments toward the OPI Superintendent, Elsie Arntzen.

In short: Get over it.

Here’s something from the first iteration of Electric City Weblog after the Tribune outed me after a piece I wrote gained some public traction:

Anonymity gives one the freedom to vent and when I started a couple years ago, blowing off steam over news events was a primary reason to write here. I can appreciate those who suggest anonymous commenting is not useful in our political process, but I disagree. Believe it or not, there are those in the public and private sector who are petty enough to hold a person’s opinions against him or her. Further, anonymous political chatter has a long history in our culture. In fact, the famous “Common Sense” was originally anonymous.

Ask yourself why a government official would be so concerned about who wrote some ideas, rather than about the ideas themselves? Why does it matter who wrote them? Could it be that government power might be used against the author (or at least the long remembered will to use it against the author)?

Whenever I have had this discussion with people in power, guess what they say?

“Oh, we would never do that.” As though government employees, or in this case, educators, are somehow unique and not subject to the same petty vanities and prejudices that the rest of human beings struggle with.

Some people prefer to write anonymously. It’s perfectly legal. It’s not chicken-sh*t, it’s not a cheap shot, it’s not bad form. It’s legitimate, and there are people who prefer to write that way.

My advice to public officials now that there’s a ‘new blog in town,’ just get over it and either contend with the ideas or ignore them. (Of course, if we have our way, we can eliminate the latter as a viable choice!)

And remember, too, you get to come at us anonymously. All we require is an email address and, in this day of gmail, those aren’t too hard to come by.

Lock Her Up?

President Trump should direct the FBI to immediately refer all of its currently held evidence to the Department of Justice for consideration of the prosecution of criminal charges related to her private email server and any, related obstruction of justice allegations. Further, he should direct his law enforcement agencies to renew their investigation of this entire situation, including Madam Secretary and any of her associates who may have been involved.

I fully admit that I am no fan of Hillary Clinton. Frankly, I am not a huge (“Yuuuuuge?”) fan of President Trump, either. But this is not about some sort of weird revenge against Hillary Clinton; this is an important necessity to demonstrate to all US citizens that justice is applied fairly in this country to all citizens.

My personal belief is that there is a very, very small group of people who would have been able to do what Secretary Clinton did without facing federal charges, or at least the serious possibility of them. If you listen to Director Comey’s list of ‘sins’ from his July 5, 2016, press conference where he indicated he would not be pressing charges, it is clear that there was at least a reasonable possibility of federal, criminal culpability. I have read a great deal about Director Comey’s suggestion that she could be exonerated (or not prosecuted) due to a lack of “intent” that the statute does not require, but I am not in a position today to state whether he was right or not. What I will say, though, is that difficult legal decisions in a high profile, federal case should be made by the lawyers at the Department of Justice, not by law enforcement officers at the FBI.  The FBI investigates potential crimes; the DOJ decides whether to prosecute them.

Donald Trump proclaimed often and loudly that he would “lock her up.” He made this promise because he either believed she was guilty of a federal crime, or it was a shameless pander to the rest of us to try to win the election. Only one choice leaves our President with any honor: he believed it to be true, and he will investigate and prosecute because he sincerely is on the side of the ‘little guy.’

He would demonstrate that he recognizes that if one of us did what Secretary Clinton did with classified information on her private email server (which we now know was apparently “hacked” by the Russians in their alleged attempts to “hack the election”), we would not walk free without so much as a charge. I can think of a high school kid who received more punishment for posting allegedly inappropriate thoughts about girls on the internet. Could any of us get away with this, all while publicly lying and denying? I do not believe so. A failure to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute, would demonstrate that there is a very, very small group of people in this country who are, essentially, above the law. This includes high level, politically influential people on both sides of the aisle and, probably the very wealthy.

But it sure doesn’t include us.

And that’s not right.