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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Page One News at a Glance

Warm weather, rains bring flooding

'Big Box Ordinance' repealed

Voters approve some changes in county government

Sexual assault in Stevensville

Stevi holds special board meeting

Warm weather, rains bring flooding

By Michael Howell

With some snow pack already accumulated in the mountains of Western Montana, the recent warm weather and rain has wreaked unprecedented havoc in Glacier National Park, washing out three sections of the famed Going to the Sun Road with extensive flooding elsewhere in the park. Here in the Bitterroot Valley we did not receive as much rain nor were our road washouts as spectacular. But we had our share.

No injuries were reported or displacements due to flooding, according to Disaster and Emergency Services director Ron Nicholas, although a bridge crossing Kootenai Creek on Kootenai Creek Road was washed out.

Ravalli County Road Supervisor David Ohnstad said that several county roads had portions under water last week as creeks throughout the county, especially on the west side, jumped their banks. Ohnstad said that the West Side Road had water all over it at one point, Sheafman Creek road and Meridian Road, south of Victor, had water running across them in places, and a culvert crossing had been washed out on Kootenai Creek Road west of Stevensville.

"There were also a few private citizens that called about water on their property and in their yards," said Ohnstad, "and at one place, along Chaffin Creek, the water was running smack dab into a trailer." He said that the trailer's occupant was currently absent, perhaps on vacation.

The washout of the culvert crossing at Kootenai Creek remains a problem, according to Commissioner Greg Chilcott. Several homeowners west of the creek lost their only means of access. So far, continuing high water is impeding an accurate assessment of the damage.

The structure that washed out is actually a half culvert resting on a cement foundation. As of last Monday, engineers could not determine the extent to which the underlying foundation may have been compromised. As a result the road remains closed. Commissioners are considering a plan for a temporary fix that might allow one lane traffic at the crossing with a long term fix being a new bridge at an estimated cost of about $250,000, according to Chilcott.

In the meantime, it is only due to the good graces of the adjacent neighboring landowners, the Browns, Costons, and Weatherlys, according to Chilcott, that other homeowners up above can still make their way in and out.

Malika B. Coston said that the county signed off on a written agreement to accept liability for the public use of a road through the ranch, although it is not really a road and involves crossing a pasture. She said that travel was restricted to people who live in the area and that currently even emergency vehicles would not use the temporary road. She said that the neighbors using the road have been very respectful. They are constantly monitoring the state of the roadway and restricting travel to 4-wheel drive vehicles when the ground becomes muddy.

"It's not the greatest road," said Coston, "but it's usable."

County road officials have yet to determine the feasibility of a temporary fix that would possibly allow one lane traffic until a new bridge is installed.

"We have no firm conclusion on when it may be re-opened," said Ohnstad.

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'Big Box Ordinance' repealed

By Michael Howell

In a tight vote, the "Big Box Ordinance," passed by the Commissioners last April, that would limit the size of retail stores in the county to 60,000 square feet, was narrowly defeated on November 7 by a vote of 7,832 to 7,324.

Shortly after Wal-Mart announced plans to build a 154,000 square foot Supercenter near Hamilton, many local business owners began a campaign to pass an ordinance limiting the size of retail stores in the valley to 60,000 square feet, about the size of the existing K-mart in Hamilton. At a meeting on April 12, attended by over a thousand people, most expressing support for the ordinance, the commissioners approved the size limitation and other design standards for retail stores.

Following the adoption of the ordinance, Stevensville resident Dallas Erickson formed the group Citizens for Economic Opportunity (CEO) and began a petition effort, funded by Wal-Mart, to place the issue on the November ballot. That effort was successful and then, with another $100,000 from Wal-Mart, Erickson formed Ravalli County Citizens for Free Enterprise and mounted a successful campaign to repeal the ordinance.

The Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, which originally worked to get the ordinance passed, has registered a complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practices against Ravalli County Citizens for Free Enterprise for failing to identify Wal-Mart in its campaign advertising. State law requires that political action committees identify in their name any economic interest that is a majority contributor to its campaign efforts. If it is determined that the campaign finance laws were violated and that the violation affected the election, the election results could be voided.

Russ Lawrence, President of the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, has expressed concerns, not only about the possible violation of the naming and labeling laws governing political action committees, but also about the fact that people living within county's municipalities were not allowed to vote on the issue.

Wal-Mart, through its public affairs manager Gray McGinnis, has maintained all along that it would abide by the community's decision. With a vote now in their favor, the plan is to proceed with the construction of a Supercenter north of Hamilton on 23 acres adjacent to Highway 93. The building permit has already been approved by the state. The proposed water and sewer systems for the Supercenter have not yet been approved.

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Voters approve some changes in county government

By Michael Howell

Ravalli County voters overwhelmingly approved decreasing the term lengths of county commissioners from the present six-year terms to shorter four-year terms. They also approved increasing the number of commissioners from the present number of three to a total of five commissioners.

According to the county's unofficial tally on Monday, November 13, Ravalli County voters expressed a strong desire to shorten the term of county commissioners to four years from the current six-year terms by a vote of 13,832 to 3,823.

They also decided by a vote of 10,848 to 6,670 to increase the number of county commissioners from 3 to 5. It would make Ravalli County the fourth county in the state to have more than three county commissioners.

The voters turned down a government study recommendation to make the election of all county commissioners concurrent. But with five commissioners serving four-year terms, three of the commissioners may be up for election at once for some elections.

The voters also turned down a ballot measure to require that commissioners are elected by district-only voting. Currently, although each commissioner represents a district in the county, they are voted on by the entire county. The same will be true for the five county commissioners that will be elected.

The Government Study Commission, which placed the measure to increase the number of commissioners on the ballot, maintains that because newly elected commissioner Howard Lyons and Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Alan Thompson were specifically elected to serve six-year terms, they will all have to stand for election again under the newly adopted four-year term limits. Their reasoning is based upon an existing Attorney General Opinion and County Attorney George Corn has expressed his agreement.

The voters also turned down a ballot issue calling for non-partisan elections. As a result the election for new county commissioners will begin with a primary scheduled for April 3, and elections on June 5, according to election administrator Regina Wilson.

Wilson said that there are still some aspects of the election process that are not clearly understood yet, but she believes that the current commissioner districts will have to be redrawn creating a total of five districts and that establishment of the new districts may involve the courts. She said that she plans on nailing down the details as soon as possible.

Both Commissioners Chilcott and Thompson have expressed disagreement with the notion that all five seats on the commission should be up for election.

Chilcott called the law on the matter confusing. He said that in his reading of the law the terms for "plan of government" and "form of government" were used interchangeably, making the law confusing.

"The voters spoke about wanting five commissioners and four-year terms," said Chilcott. "I respect that. But I don't know if the voters understood that it meant placing all five positions up for vote at once, because they denied the proposal to make commissioner's elections concurrent."

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Sexual assault in Stevensville

By Michael Howell

A woman was sexually assaulted Saturday night, October 28, on Pine Street in Stevensville. According to Police Chief James Marble, the woman was walking home from a downtown establishment when she was assaulted by a man. He said that when the woman tried to scream for help she was knocked unconscious. It was very dark, but she described her assailant as being a stocky man about 5 feet 11 inches tall, unshaven with a stubble, and wearing a chain necklace with some sort of pendant.

Marble also reported a rash of thefts recently in Stevensville. The thefts involve numerous items taken from outside many different homes. Many of the items are not of much monetary value. A female suspect has been identified, according to Marble. She has a very fair complexion, is about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing about 120 pounds. She was seen wearing a three-quarter length blue parka and a baseball cap with a red letter.

Anyone with any information concerning either of these cases is urged to contact the Stevensville Police Department at 777-3011.

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Stevi holds special board meeting

By Michael Howell

The Stevensville School Board held a special board meeting at noon on Friday, November 10, to discuss concerns of the School District's principals. The discussion proceeded in very general terms with the principals each expressing dissatisfaction with the "direction the school is heading."

Pressed for more specific information about their concerns by a board member, Elementary Principal Jackie Mavencamp referred to a letter sent to the superintendent and ostensibly signed by all the principals, saying, "Our letter spells out what our concerns were."

Board Chairman Jim Cloud suggested that because the issue "by its very nature involves personnel matters, it should be discussed in private." He suggested that the principals agree to meet with him, Superintendent Dennis Kimzey, and two other board members of their choice and try to resolve the issue outside of a public meeting.

"I would hate to see people say things that they might regret," said Cloud.

Remarks by board member Bill Goslin suggest that the letter may have included a request that the board take a vote of confidence or no confidence in the board chairman. Over what specific issue, if any, was not made clear.

School officials have refused to release the letter to the press pending consultation with an attorney. As of Monday the letter was still not made available.

The principals adjourned shortly from the meeting to collaborate and upon return agreed to meet with Cloud and Kimzey and chose board members Ed Cummings and Cathy Cook to also attend an administrative work session to address their concerns.

Cloud then closed the meeting to the public to conduct a mid-year review of Superintendent Dennis Kimzey. He also announced that no record would be kept of the closed session, as has been their practice. Bitterroot Star publisher Michael Howell protested the closure. He questioned whether the Superintendent had a right of privacy in this case and the legality of not keeping any record of the closed session as it would preclude any judicial review if the closure was challenged in court.

The next regular school board meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, November 14.

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