Bitterroot Star Masthead


Volume XIX, Number 29

Page One News

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


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Page One News at a Glance


Darby School Board votes for 'Objective Origins'

Commissioners aim to put library district on ballot

Planning Board denies proposed subdivision

Hamilton Mayor and City Council edge toward compromise

Huhtanen asks for resignation to be tabled




Darby School Board votes for 'Objective Origins'

By Michael Howell

The Darby School Board in a 3-2 vote last Monday passed on first reading a controversial change in school policy that may change the way science is taught in the classroom.

The new policy, called "objective origins," encourages teachers to question the evidence both for and against scientific theories and mentions evolutionary theory in particular.

The new policy, first proposed by Darby minister Curtiss Brickley, has created a fire storm of discussion. Some opponents claim it is an attempt to bring religion into the school's science classes, while some proponents claim that it is only encouraging teachers and students to question certain scientific theories and their criticisms.

Over a series of continued meetings the School Board heard from over 100 members of the public. Much of the comment from those opposed and those in support of the policy was very passionate and emotions ran high at the meetings.

Some opponents argued that it was simply the latest tactic to insert Creationism into the school curriculum and teach God in the classroom. Federal Courts have repeatedly ruled against the efforts to bring Creationism into the schools. As a result, opponents claim, a new approach was developed called Intelligent Design, which tries to criticize evolution without specifically positing, defining or describing a Creator, but claiming that the evidence proves there must be one.

Brickley, at first, linked his new policy proposal to Intelligent Design, but as the debate raged and a strong attack was mustered upon the concept of Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute which promulgates it, Brickley tried to distance himself from the so-called "theory." He now claims that the new policy is independent from both Creationism and ID and really only encourages scientific criticism and questioning, especially about evolution.

Many people supporting the new policy apparently don't share Brickley's present reservations. Many spoke in favor of the policy based upon concepts of Intelligent Design. Others expressed belief in Creationism and said it should be taught in the schools. Still others were critical of science in general and made no bones about their desire to have religion taught in the classroom.

Pointing to a scientist's previous remark that there were no "absolute" facts in science, one speaker said that teaching should be based upon facts and that there were some absolute facts that could be taught, like "Jesus Christ once walked upon the earth and gave us this message..."

Some opponents of the new policy argued that it cannot be separated from the beliefs swarming around it and if implemented will inevitably bring religion into the classroom.

An attorney for the Montana School Board Association, Elizabeth Kaleva, advised the Board to first develop a curriculum for the policy and submit it to the state for review before adopting the policy. Kaleva warned the board that to proceed otherwise would run the risk of possibly endangering its state accreditation which in turn might jeopardize its funding. She also cautioned that it may draw a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the policy, as some opponents have threatened to sue if it is passed.

The Board also received a letter from Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin, concurring with Kaleva's advice and urging the Board members to follow her advice.

Doug Mann, principal of the elementary school and curriculum coordinator, also encouraged the Board to first develop a curriculum and get state approval before passing the policy. He questioned what teaching material would be used and how teachers would be trained, and what the costs of implementing the policy might be. He called passing the policy without developing a curriculum "putting the cart before the horse."

Junior high and high school principal Loyd Rennaker also urged the Board to work with the state in developing a curriculum before changing the policy.

At their meeting on Monday, February 2, at which they adopted the policy on first reading, some remarks made by Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin led some Board members to believe that he had retracted his opposition to adoption of the policy.

As a result, Board member Mary Lovejoy, who voted against it, asked the County Attorney's office for clarification. County Attorney George Corn has since written to the other Board members reaffirming both Kaleva's and McCubbin's written recommendations, concluding that in his opinion, "...it is unwise and imprudent not to follow the route suggested by Ms. Kaleva."

Corn added that, "for the sake of the District and its students, I hope none of the risks comes to pass."

According to Darby School Superintendent Jack Eggensberger, the Board has not yet scheduled the required second reading and vote to finally adopt the policy, deciding instead to take a break from the emotionally draining controversy. He did say that they were scheduled at their next meeting to discuss a letter recently received from a non-profit group called the Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, Arizona offering to defend the District at no charge if it is sued over the new policy.



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Commissioners aim to put library district on ballot

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners passed a Resolution of Intent last Thursday to place a proposal on the next general election ballot to create an independent North Valley Public Library District with an elected Board of Trustees.

The North Valley Public Library was originally created a little over a decade ago by an Inter local Agreement between the County and the Town of Stevensville, where the library is located. That agreement called for a five-member Board of Trustees with two appointed by the County, two by the Town and one jointly appointed by both the County and the Town. The County agreed to collect the taxes for the District and the Town agreed to hold the funds and do the bookkeeping, while the Library Board of Trustees had authority over budget and spending.

However, friction developed between the Library Board and the Town over unauthorized spending of library funds for the Town's purposes and unauthorized use of the interest earned by library funds for Town purposes. At one point former Town Clerk Audrey Ebel and Town Attorney Bob Brown formed a Foundation in an attempt to take control of the Library District funds, but that Foundation was dissolved when Library Board members pointed out that it was illegal for a private foundation to take control of public tax money raised for a Library District.

As a result of that dissension between the Town and the Library Board, the first Inter local Agreement was eventually dissolved and a new one was created that kept the same structure for appointment of Board members, but relieved the Town of any bookkeeping responsibilities.

Those responsibilities were taken over by the County. The mill levy supporting the Library in the new agreement was set at 5 mills. Then, however, following a ruling by the State Attorney General's office, the Library Board decided that the mill levy could not be legally limited to 5 mills. As a result they submitted a budget requiring a 6.44 mill levy and the Town and County were obliged to approve it. But the Town objected, charging that the Library Board had violated the Inter local Agreement.

The County sided with the Library District and collected the 6.44 mill levy. As a result the Town voted to dissolve the Inter local Agreement, arguing that it was no longer valid since its limit on the mill levy was being violated by the Board.

The County answered by insisting that the Inter local Agreement could not be dissolved except by mutual agreement between the County and the Town. The County argued that the contract was still valid and that it was simply the 5 mill limit that was invalid according to law.

As a result, Town Attorney Bob Brown asked for an Attorney General's Opinion concerning the affair.

In the meantime, Town and County officials met face to face recently in Hamilton and it was decided by both sides that it might make more sense and alleviate future hassles if an independent Library District was established on the model of the Bitterroot Public Library District in which Trustees are directly elected by the public.

At their meeting last week the Commissioners resolved to place such a proposal on the next election ballot. It would establish a Library District with the same boundaries as the current one, covering the Stevensville and Lone Rock School Districts, it would have five elected Trustees, and would begin operating on the same mill levy that it currently does, 6.44 mills.

A public hearing has been scheduled at the library in Stevensville on March 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss the proposal and take public comment.

Commission Chairman Betty Lund said that there is some concern about dissolving the current district without any assurances that a new district would be created by the voters, but she was optimistic that some assurances could be arranged, perhaps by timing the decision to dissolve the current district, which takes 90 days to go into effect, to overlap with the election week.

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Planning Board denies proposed subdivision

By Michael Howell

In an 8 to 1 vote last Wednesday, the Ravalli County Planning Board decided to recommend to the County Commissioners that they deny a four-lot subdivision proposed in the Hamilton Heights area off of Wilcox Lane northeast of Hamilton. The proposal to split 14.5 acres into 4 lots, made by property owners Lyn and Janet Nielson of Stevensville, came before the Planning Board with a recommendation of approval with some conditions by the planning staff. However, while the Nielsons' consultant, Leonard Shepherd, was the only person to speak in favor of the subdivision, a roomful of people spoke against it, some apparently convincingly enough to sway the Planning Board members to recommend denial.

Concerns raised by the public at the meeting included negative effects on agriculture, questions about water availability in the area, about septic drainage, about potentially affected wetlands, and about unsafe road conditions on Wilcox Lane and at the intersection of Wilcox Lane and Hamilton Heights Road. Wilcox Lane, according to several people, is extremely steep and presents a significant hazard to people using it in winter. It was stated that the local school bus would not use the lane because it presented a hazard. One person said that it may also present a hazard to emergency response vehicles in winter. There were accounts of people sliding backwards down the hill towards the Hamilton Heights Road when the road was iced up.

Local resident Karen Grenfell presented a petition signed by 100 people opposed to the development and also submitted a photo that she said was taken of her children standing at the proposed entrance to the subdivision on Wilcox Lane from 175 feet away. Only the head of her tallest child was barely visible in the photo.

Concerns were also raised that the water monitoring tests may have been skewed by the damming of a drainage that may end up affecting downstream water right users as well as a wetland down slope from the proposed subdivision.

Consultant Leonard Shepherd defended the subdivision from the volley of complaints, saying that the subdivision could be accessed by an alternate route in bad weather, that the Department of Environmental Quality had already given tacit approval of the well and septic proposals, and that a professional evaluator had approved the subdivision access site off of Wilcox Lane.

In their evaluation of the proposal according to the state's six criteria of effects upon agriculture, agricultural water users, the natural environment, local services, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and public health and safety, the Planning Board members found that there would be significant effects under five of the six criteria. The only criteria it would not significantly negatively impact, they decided, would be wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Planning Board member Ed Cummings moved that the Board recommend denial of the subdivision due to the public safety hazard at the access off of Wilcox Lane. The Board heard three different versions of the site distance at that proposed intersection. One from the County Road Superintendent, one from an engineering advisor to the County and one from the public with an attached photo. Cummings pointed out that one of the County's estimates of a 350-foot site clearance at the intersection was still short of the 430 feet required by County regulations.

Planning Board member and local builder and developer Chip Pigman raised the question of what level of expertise is required in making judgments about a site distance.

Cummings countered that he made his judgment based upon the photo which showed that a small child could not even be seen from 175 feet. Cummings said that unless the woman was lying, and he had no reason to believe she was, then the proposed intersection obviously presented a safety hazard.

Cummings' original motion was then amended to include that the recommendation for denial was based upon the finding of significant unmitigated effects on five of the six state criteria, not just public health and safety. The Board agreed, except for Pigman, and the motion to recommend denial was passed.

Three other subdivisions received recommendations for approval the same evening. The Reynolds Subdivision, a six-lot major subdivision on Grantsdale Road south of Hamilton, was approved as were two minor subdivisions, a four-lot subdivision northeast of Stevensville and a three-lot subdivision near Corvallis. The Planning Board has set a limit on considering four subdivisions per meeting while they attempt to tackle a growing backlog of subdivision proposals.



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Hamilton Mayor and City Council edge toward compromise

By Michael Howell

Hamilton Mayor Joe Petrusaitis hopes that recent tensions between himself and some Hamilton City Council members may be winding down.

Under the influence of newly elected members, the Hamilton City Council has moved toward exercising more influence over selection of committee members on City Council committees. Not waiting for the chance to amend the current Zoning Ordinance, which allows the Mayor to appoint Zoning Commission members, the City Council passed an Emergency Ordinance to suspend implementation of that portion of the current Zoning Ordinance until they have a chance to revise it. They also voted to suspend implementation of the provisions allowing City officials to do home inspections for violations without permission from property owners and suspending the Mayor's authority to appoint a Zoning administrator.

City Council President Bob Scott said that he believes the Council should have some say in these matters.

"The Mayor has not consulted with the Council in these matters," said Scott. "He's given us his list and said 'take it or leave it'."

Mayor Petrusaitis vetoed the Council's passage of the Emergency Ordinance suspending enforcement of the Zoning Ordinance provisions, leading to a showdown in which Council members threatened to override his veto.

At their last meeting, however, after long discussion, a compromise of sorts was reached, according to both sides. According to Council President Bob Scott, the Council agreed to uphold the Mayor's veto of their Emergency Ordinance with the provision that he agree not to exercise the power granted him under the Zoning Ordinance to appoint committee members, an administrator and, what Scott calls, the "home invasion" provisions. In the meantime acceptable amendments to the current Zoning Ordinance would be worked out.

At the same meeting the Council also passed on first reading an amendment to the City Code concerning committee appointments. The amendment would add to the current ordinance that if after two tries at making appointments no agreement is reached then the City Council will by majority vote be able to select new appointments.

"The impasse we are at over committee appointments should not be allowed to stand," said Scott. He believes that the resolution of the impasse should rest with the City Council instead of the Mayor. He also contests the idea that the City has been in gridlock over the issue because the Committee of the Whole, that is the entire City Council, has been conducting the business usually relegated to special committees.

"It is inefficient, but it is not gridlock," said Scott.

City Attorney Ken Bell had some questions about the legality of the proposed amendment but also felt uncomfortable at being caught between two sides in a political tussle. He agreed to look into the matter but insists that he not be drawn into a political fight by either party. He did clarify, however, that Mayor Petrusaitis' attempts to veto Council resolutions on their first reading is a useless and ineffectual act.

"There is nothing to veto until a resolution has passed on second reading," said Bell.

Mayor Petrusaitis is optimistic after the last meeting.

"We are striking a compromise," the Mayor said. "We're talking. We're going to move forward."



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Huhtanen asks for resignation to be tabled

By Michael Howell

Hamilton City Grant Administrator Dale Huhtanen, who turned in a resignation letter recently, has now asked that his resignation be tabled.

Huhtanen told the Star that he submitted a letter of resignation to the Mayor recently "because of all the disruption at the City with the Council."

He said that he was very upset with newly elected City Council members for calling him a liar. He said they accused him of lying on grant applications and about water rate reductions. He denies both allegations.

Huhtanen said that he had made a decision to retire in August or September but that the decision was accelerated due to the Council's recent actions.

"I don't work for the Council," said Huhtanen, "I work with them. But in my contract it says specifically that I work for the Mayor."

In discussing his imminent resignation with the Mayor, water project engineers, downtown business owners and others, however, Huhtanen said that he was convinced to give things another chance.

"I want to observe and digest what the council actions are before I reach a final decision regarding whether I continue with my resignation or continue with my employment at the city until the end of the project," wrote Huhtanen to the Mayor.



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