Happy, happy Friday. All best, Wheeler.

Mort the magnificent at home at Rockin Rudy's.

Mort the magnificent at home at Rockin Rudy's.

Do you know what someone in a position of authority told me secretly today? “Leave early.” Wahooo! I’m going to give it a whirl.

The picture is for my last bullet point. Here are the matters at hand as I await returned calls.

1. This is funny. I left city communications director Ginny Merriam a voicemail saying something like this: “Hey Ginny. It’s Keila calling. I am doing a brief update about the interlocal agreement for OPG and the new city planning office. I talked to Marilyn about what was going on and wanted to check in with you to find out if you think John the mayor wants to talk about that too since it’s his deal. Anyway, 523-5262. Thanks. Bye.” (I say “John the mayor” out of habit ’cause at one point, when you were talking about City Hall, there was John the mayor, John a councilor, and Jon a councilor.)

Anyhow, the city uses this software that translates voicemails into emails. Merriam sent me the translation for my Friday amusement, and I’m  pasting it here for yours: “Hey Ginny it’s Wheeler calling I am doing a brief update about the inter local agreement for OPG and the new city planning office I talked to Marilyn about what was going on wanted to check in with you to find out if you think John them air want to talk about that too since it is since it’s it’s deal anyway 523-5262 thanks bye.” Wheeler? Alright, then. Wheeler.

2. Did you make it to any of the Mountain Line meetings about changes to bus routes? I hope so. Here’s a story about one meeting this week. If you don’t know about this project, go here.

It’s always wonderful to talk with people who are enthusiastic about their jobs, and Mountain Line general manager Michael Tree seems to be one of those folks. Below is more from Tree on a couple other questions.

“I’ve really enjoyed hearing from the community,” Tree wrote in an email. “Their passion speaks to importance of Mountain Line services.  I think in the end the community will end up with a more efficient system that carries more passengers and better supports economic development and the prosperity of Missoula.”

Q. What’s next for public meetings on the changes to bus routes?

A. I anticipate that a draft preferred alternative will be ready for the Board of Directors and public to view and comment on in late April.  Due to the high interest, I anticipate that we will move the meeting date/time/location off of the regularly scheduled April 26th Board meeting at noon to try and accommodate as many people as possible.  We’ll also put the draft preferred alternative online with a comment form during that time period for those who cannot make the meeting, or who would like to have a venue other than the meeting to express their thoughts.

Q. Will people be able to see public comments? From a question on Twitter.

A. The online comments and those at the workshop have been enormous (considering both the first round of public workshops and the second thus far).  Although we are keeping the comments and they will be on file with the project, most likely we will provide in the draft final report to the Board a summary by theme of the comments. (At the meeting, Tree or the consultant went through a list of the surveys received from folks on the bus and online, and the total is in the couple thousand.)

Q. Some people at one meeting said they would petition out of paying into Mountain Line if their service got cut. Can they do that?

A. I’m sure there is a mechanism for residents to not remain in the Transit District.  I’m not sure of the details of how this might happen.  I think that one of the important things for residents in the Transit District to keep in mind is that as the community looks at public transportation options, there most likely will be areas where fixed route is not the most efficient and cost effective way to provide public transit services.  Vanpooling and carpooling might take care of important transportation needs while at the same time providing resources for a more user-friendly and livable fixed route system in areas of the community where more demand or usage will be present.  Additionally, critical door-to-door service for the senior and disabled within areas where the community might want to eliminate fixed route service for efficiency reasons needs to be considered.  The number of seniors and disabled in the community will rise considerably in the future and these services will be important.

Also, Councilman Adam Hertz posted a link to the following study on his “Adam Hertz for Missoula City Council” page on Facebook. (“Like” it for his updates.)

In 2010, the Montana Policy Institute conducted a survey that found public transit in Montana was more expensive and less environmentally friendly than driving. While understanding that some Montanans need access to transportation, MPI included several great options for possible fixes to provide for more convenience, lower expenses, and more environmental friendliness.

3. The other day, I went to Rockin Rudy’s to pick up a card for a friend. A puffy cat reclined in the corner. Yes, Rockin Rudy’s got not just one but TWO new cats. From the back, one (pictured above) even looks like the late and beloved Bubba. Naturally, a story was in order.

OK. I got a call back, so it’s time to write a story. Ciao for now.

— Wheeler

The more things change

Ever wonder what folks were talking about in City Hall in 1987?

Councilman Jason Wiener passed on the news from that spring from some young reporters for the Sussex Times about “City Hall (the place where you pay your parking tickets).” Take a peek here.

“(Mayor Bob Lovegrove) mostly talked about how there was not enough money and how bad our city budget was,” reads part of a story by Ada Brant. “He also discussed the drainage problem in the South Hills, problems funding city parks, zoning, getting along with the city council, traffic tickets and jailhouse conditions.”

Other topics? Drugs and alcohol. Hiking. Cracking jokes.

Don’t you just love that description, though: “The place where you pay your parking tickets.”

— Keila Szpaller

Road blocks to public documents

Noon on Monday was the deadline for members of the public to turn in comments on the Poverello Center draft environmental assessment on the Trail’s End site.

If you want to see those pronto, you’re out of luck. Office of Planning and Grants director Mike Barton isn’t releasing those comments until sometime in the future, probably 48 hours from today and once they’re included in the overall assessment.

Those comments are clearly public records, and part of a Montana statute that deals with public records says citizens are “entitled to inspect and copy public writings.”

Every public officer having the custody of a public writing that a citizen has a right to inspect is bound to give the citizen on demand a certified copy of it …”

Well, I don’t need anything certified, and obviously, there’s exceptions for privacy and other things not at play here. I know these documents won’t unlock the secret to everlasting youth or winning the Republican presidential nomination, and I get that two days isn’t going to kill anyone.

But it’s disappointing that at least in this case, public access will take place when the head of the department — and one criticized in a recent report for poor customer service — chooses to make them available. The law doesn’t say the public should see stuff only when it’s convenient.

Barton and I had exchanged voicemails and emails. He said OPG received 24 comments. That’s not a lot, so I stopped by the office to see if I could either get copies of them or if someone could send them by email.

If someone gets gobs of comments on a document, like I remember City Public Works did on the Russell Street project, then it obviously takes a little bit to burn them all onto a disk. Public Works did that for the Missoulian, and it was great.

I asked if I could at least get the material that was sent by email ’cause we all know that takes about two minutes, and the answer was no.

First, it was because the request amounted to stopping the entire process of writing the final assessment. I don’t buy that because I know how long it takes to send emails.

Then, it was because the staff member working on the main document was sick and working from home. Well, he was sending other emails from home, so why not this, right? And if that was really the reason, why didn’t someone say earlier, hey, our guy is sick, so can we wait ’til he’s better and back?

Then, it was that the public would be commenting on comments published in the Missoulian before all of them were packaged in the environmental assessment.

Later, it was that the mayor hadn’t read them yet. Really? We have to stand by until he’s read stuff before we can see it?

Barton told me he didn’t mind being the guy to say no — for now — because he was a “pariah” around there anyway. I’m figuring that has something to do with the proposed split of OPG to create a separate city development office partly for better customer service.  Tomorrow there’s another meeting on the topic.

As an aside, all the folks at the OPG counter were super helpful. I think there were three folks working at the front, and each one of ’em asked to help at different times. Nice.

Anyway, to see about those comments, I called city attorney Jim Nugent, who said Barton had talked with him earlier, and Nugent didn’t know offhand how the law dealt with this particular format. I like Nugent, but I think he was throwing a red herring at me.

I and editor Sherry Devlin followed up with city communications director Ginny Merriam, and she said no, too. I’ll paste her email below.

It’s odd how with some things, the city is so open. You can get all kinds of material online, all kinds of reports, all kinds of minutes.

But then in other cases, it’s, well, oddly difficult. Last year, when the Missoulian learned the Trail’s End was the preferred site for the rebuilt Poverello, a city official repeatedly requested we not publish the information for a month so we wouldn’t ruin the deal. Well, we weren’t going to wait, and we haven’t ruined the deal.

I try to be reasonable. I do. When I ask folks for information or data, I usually preface the request with a caveat that I don’t know if I’m asking for something that takes a second with the push of a button or if it’s something that takes days and hours of labor.

This time, we’ll wait. Not with bated breath, mind you, but with some consternation about the reasons for the wait. I mean, in all that time explaining why they had to wait to provide the comments, someone could have just sent ’em.

OK, email below.

Dear Keila and Sherry,

I’ve looked into your request for the comments that were gathered for the environmental review for the Poverello Center proposed site. Here’s my understanding of the status.

The comments were gathered with the purpose of being part of the final report that our Office of Planning and Grants sends on to Denver. That will be a public document. Part of the requirements is staff response to the comments, which Mike Barton’s staff member is writing now, and Mike and others will review. Mayor Engen has yet to see the comments and the final draft. Until it is final, the draft and its pieces, including the comments, are draft work product and not yet public documents. City Attorney Jim Nugent can point to the public records management portions of state law that apply. He’d be glad to answer more detailed questions.

Mike expects the entire report to be finished by the end of the week, likely in 48 hours, and he will be glad to provide it.

Ginny Merriam

Public Information/Communications Director

— Keila Szpaller

More from the State of the Community

So in short, I liked the format. Did you go? To the State of the Community? Last week?

I estimated some 120 people went, and I got word some other folks estimated 200. So it was a good crowd.

One good thing about the format was people in the audience got to drive part of the agenda, so it really was about community. All kinds of questions came up, from whether Missoula needs a bill of rights that deals with our water to support for the arts to rapes on campus.

William Marcus moderated, and he did a nice job of spreading the wealth of questions around and making sure a single topic didn’t dominate the evening.

One disappointment from my perspective in the audience was the folks on stage were all men: Marcus. John Engen. Bill Carey. Royce Engstrom.

Although we have a dearth of women on boards and commissions — something I reported about earlier — they’re not completely absent in local government. The Missoula City Council president is Marilyn Marler, for instance, and I would have been interested to hear her response to a lot of the questions folks asked.

I know the Board of County Commissioners rotates the job of chair, but it might have been alright to have Commissioner Jean Curtiss or Michele Landquist up there with Chairman Carey just so people don’t get the mistaken impression it’s all guys running the show around here.

But enough about that. The City of Missoula, Missoula County, and University of Montana gave out this brochure, and one page of it shows dollar bills and what portion of each dollar the city, county and UM spend where.

I’m going to recreate that here but in text. It won’t be pretty, but you’ll get the nut of the information (by percent):

City of Missoula

28.34 Public works

20.63 Public safety

12.66 Transfer out – other financing (I don’t know what this is! I’ll ask.)

10.98 Culture and recreation

10.87 General government

6.36 Housing and community development

3.57 Debt service

3.51 Capital outlay

1.73 Public health

0.92 Internal service (I don’t know what this is either … TBD!)

0.44 Social and economic services

Missoula County

26.2 Public safety

18.9 Public health

18.6 Public works

11.4 General government

7.6 Community development

6.3 Human services

5.9 Culture and recreation

5.1 Criminal justice

University of Montana

56 Salaries

19 Benefits

13 Operating costs

8 Scholarship and waivers

3 Transfers (The brochure points from this expense to “software licenses: Much of this goes to maintaining software licenses for thousands of campus computers. This funding category also helped with debt repayment on the bond that financed the Fifth/Sixth/Arthur streets project near campus.”)

1 Equipment and capital

OK, that’s it for now.

— Keila Szpaller

Bussing means kissing!

bus pictureBut please, no kissing when you’re busing.

Did you see that Mountain Line has some big ideas floating out there for its bus routes? Like, buses every 15 minutes on some routes?! Hot dog.

Take a look at the plans and maps, and then go to the meetings. This whole project is kind of exciting ’cause the wheels of government usually turn slowly, but I think this plan could result in some meaty changes.

Of course, if the buses are coming every 15 minutes to some stops, they’re going away altogether from other places. So … take a gander and see if your stop is going to be washed away or is getting some oomph.

The meetings are next week:

Wednesday, March 21: University of Montana, University Center Room 326, noon to 2 p.m.

Wednesday, March 21: Western Montana Fairgrounds, Home Arts Building (Building 35), 6 to 8 p.m.

Thursday, March 22: Holiday Inn-Downtown, 200 S. Pattee St., 6 to 8 p.m.

You can comment online, too, if you can’t attend any of the workshops.

— Keila Szpaller

Basketball! WikiLeaks! Hot rods!

bball“About the only time the ball didn’t go in for the Griz was when Will Cherry tried to fling it into the crowd.”

What a great lead on reporter Fritz Neighbor’s story about the game last night. The photo is by Tom Bauer.

It was my honey’s birthday, and he wanted to go to the game, so away we went. I don’t usually go to sports events, but it felt really great to be rooting for the University of Montana men’s basketball team.

I’ve never heard of any of those athletes connected to criminal acts or allegations, unlike the football players. I wonder what’s different. Anyway, it was a fun time, and I learned the crowd can be as brutal to the guest team and referees as it is wild for the home team.

What else? A couple reading suggestions from this week’s Missoula Independent:

Also, check out Councilman Bob Jaffe’s report from yesterday’s committee meetings. The focus is on the Office of Planning and Grants, or, from Jaffe’s perspective, the plan to create a stellar city department.

“We are looking at creating a hot rod state of the art best practices high performance development services department. It will all work much better and more efficiently if the county, at least for the urban growth area, participates.”

Well, that’s plenty for now, except for a cheer, without reservation, for the basketball team: Go Griz!

— Keila Szpaller

Lots and lots of great news

wilkinsSo yesterday, Councilman Jon Wilkins had a birthday. And he attended the council meeting all the same.

City Clerk Marty Rehbein brought him cupcakes his wife had made to share with folks. They were German chocolate cupcakes … yum.

That’s a great smile on Wilkins, isn’t it?

KPAX reporter Breanna Roy followed the eating of those cupcakes and Tweeted their disappearance. Here’s @BreannaRoy:

Some councilors are waiting to eat their cupcakes … but (Councilor Mike) O’Herron ate his already; (Councilman Dick) Haines is using a pocket knife on his.

What else? There’s more good news. The councilors approved the micro-distillery at 129 W. Front St., and without hesitation. From last night’s story:

The council also unanimously – and enthusiastically – approved a “conditional use” to allow a micro-distillery to operate at 129 W. Front St. The Montgomery Distillery is slated to open sometime in May. When (Councilor Caitlin) Copple seconded the motion to approve, Mayor John Engen said a second wasn’t needed. To laughter, though, he joked that he’d come to expect just that kind of enthusiasm from her, especially when it came to distilled products: “I’m a little surprised Mr. (Councilman Jon) Wilkins didn’t offer a third.”

Here’s a tad more about the distillery in an earlier story.

chairsWhat else? Well, spring is just around the corner. I hiked up Mount Sentinel on Saturday and got muddy. On the way down, I got this picture of the chairs. Just four months until July 4, when folks will probably sit there and watch fireworks from those chairs. It’ll be warm. We’ll all be in tank tops.

Oh, another thing. I wrote this story about architect Don MacArthur and the award he got from the Montana Association of Planners.

I told him I’m really excited to see the Front Street Parking Garage when it opens. One reason is I am kind of skeptical that it actually won’t look like a parking garage. But what if he’s right? What if it actually looks cool?

He seemed pretty confident, so maybe in addition to counting down to spring, we can count down to the grand opening of the parking garage. As if things weren’t geeky enough already.

Well, I’m heading out. Talk to you later.

— Keila Szpaller

Don’t drink out of the wrong coffee mug

coffee mugsOr what? You might drink mold. Sometimes, the coffee mugs just pile up, and you have to bring in backup, the good ol’ Mason jars.

But let’s move from gross to interesting. I just saw this chart ProPublica sent out tracking the disbursement of nearly $600 billion of bailout money. Take a peek.

If you search for recipients in Montana, you get two places.

Gateway Community Federal Credit Union got $1.657 million. Stockman Bank of Montana is supposed to get $145,055, but it hasn’t yet.

I wonder how those came about, but finding out isn’t on the agenda right now. What is on the agenda, besides a couple other stories? Giving this desk a dirty-coffee-mug bailout.

— Keila Szpaller