Whether we like it or not, because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of our ordinary freedoms as Americans and Montanans are being restricted, for the good of our neighbors and the community as a whole. This is not unprecedented. I posted an image of the Richland County order restricting freedoms during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. (See Richland County: 1918 & 2020 Diseases) In Montana today, the current restrictions are no more severe than they were in 1918. (See Montana Governor's 10-Page Stay Home Order and Exceptions (3-26-2020))
But there are essential things that must go on.
Montana is a republic. Essential to a free republic is the continuation of free elections. Pandemic or no pandemic, somehow we must maintain our free republic by holding the primary election regularly scheduled for June this year.
Under Montana’s election statutes, local government has standing authority to choose an option of mail balloting for certain elections, but not all elections. That option generally does not exist for the regular primary election.
Not to fear. Your local Election Administrator, Stephanie Verhasselt, and your Board of County Commissioners, have been on this job for some time. They saw this issue coming and began early to lead in the maintenance of our free republic.
Verhasselt worked with a variety of other offices in the state toward emergency authority from the Governor that was needed to allow an exceptional method of voting. Then she caused a resolution to be prepared for the Board of County Commissioners to activate the emergency option.
The Board of County Commissioners, after proper legal notice of the item of business by agenda, promptly took up the matter and have adopted an authorizing resolution that will let you vote without congregating dangerously at polling places.
The Richland County Courthouse is on lock-down, but essential work of government goes on, and our free republic is being preserved locally in a variety of ways that perhaps go unnoticed. This action to preserve our right to vote is just one of them.
Below is Resolution 2020-010, “A resolution providing that the 2020 primary election may be conducted by mail ballot and expanded early voting with COVID-19 precautions.”
The Governor of Montana today (March 26, 2020) issued an order requiring Montanans to stay at home — generally.
The order has many exceptions. The order is 10 pages.
The directive is effective at 12:01 a.m. on March 28, 2020 through April 10, 2020
The major headings in the order are:
I. Stay at Home; Social Distancing Requirements; and Essential Businesses and Operations
1. Stay at home or place of residence.
2. Non-essential business and operations to cease.
3. Prohibited activities.
4. Prohibited and permitted travel.
5. Leaving your home for essential activities is permitted.
6. Health Care and Public Health Operations.
7. Human Services Operations.
8. Essential Infrastructure.
9. Governmental Functions.
10. Businesses covered by this Directive.
11. Essential Businesses and Operations.
12. Social Distancing Requirements for Essential Businesses and Operations.
13. Minimum Basic Operations.
14. Essential Travel.
15. Intent of this Directive.
II. Directive Is Public Health Order and Enforceable By County Attorney
III. Local Public Health Agencies to Assist in Administration of this Public Health Order
IV. Less-Restrictive Local Ordinances Preempted
The order fails to recognize as necessary such work as priests and pastors visiting the sick or dying for Confession, Absolution, Extreme Unction, Last Rites, or Sacrament of the Altar. Along those lines, the order no doubt has other blind spots that would come to light with further reflection and experience.
When we were kids, we heard about the epidemic of 1918. My uncle was an infant and died from it. At Stordahl Cemetery, his head stone has a single date. He did not survive to be a year old. My Dad was deathly sick from it, having been born in June 1918, but survived.
Mom and Dad would tell us about the symptoms of Spanish Influenza, measures taken against it, and how widespread it became. For us kids, it was an distant world, too huge and too awful to comprehend.
Today, with conavirus diease (COVID-19) caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus, so many things are happening so fast that it is difficult to keep up. There is so much contradictory information. Knowing whom to trust is a problem.
For those of us living in Richland County, Montana, Order No. 2 of the Richland County Council of Defense, October 15, 1918 is an interesting piece of history. The text, preserved by the Montana State Historical Society, reads as follows:
Richland County Council of Defense
Large numbers of Richland County people have given public comment about closure of MDU’s Lewis and Clark Station at Sidney. We did this four times to MDU and three times to the Public Service Commission. Richland County Commissioners have filed written public comment. With a few precious exceptions such as PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci, we have been speaking to people who have plugged their ears. One PSC commissioner has even complained about us being allowed to appear before them.
Public comment is good, but we need to take further steps. With public comment alone, all they do is go through the motions of listening, wait us out at meetings, and go back to Bismarck and Helena as if they never heard a word.
We packed the council chambers at Sidney City Hall on April 25, 2019 when the PSC Commissioner for our district, Randy Pinocci, held a public comment hearing.
We packed the meeting hall of the ag experiment station on July 15, 2019 when MDU hosted a meeting.
County Commissioner Duane Mitchell developed several questions to be addressed by the PSC. Commissioners Loren H. Young and Shane Gorder worked with Mitchell on a unanimous set of questions. As a united Commission, they sent the questions in a letter to the PSC. Their letter resulted in a public comment hearing in Helena on October 29, 2019. We packed the room. It was literally standing room only with more of the crowd spilling through the doorway and into the hall.
Commissioner Pinnocci held another public comment hearing at the Richland County Event Center on February 25, 2020. We provided comment for about three hours. This meeting even drew a candidate for the PSC from a different district, Representative Daniel Zolnikov, House District 47, representing Billing, who commented supporting Richland County.
What has all this voluminous public comment changed? Nothing. Why not? Because they have plugged their ears.
In emails on September 12 and 13, 2019, Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman complained about us being allowed to appear and give public comment on the letter from our County Commissioners. He zeroed in on the fact that others, like MDU, are parties to their case before the PSC, but none of us in Richland County were parties. As Americans and Montanans, we have the right to citizen participation in the operation of governmental agencies. We have the right to open government, not a closed government denying public comment, not a government complaining about public comment, and not a government of plugged ears.
The complaint by Commissioner Koopman exhibits a profound lack of understanding of basic American civics that every 4-H kid, every Girl Scout, and every graduate of 8th grade knows. He should withdraw from participating in any further proceedings involving Richland County.
We can thank Commissioner Koopman for one thing. He showed us that we need to do something more than give public comment. He made a sharp distinction between public comment by non-parties on the one hand and participation by intervening parties on the other. That is what we need to do. Various parties in Richland County need to intervene as parties in MDU cases to use the rights of parties to obtain real and complete information, to make our case, and clean the wax out of the ears.
The hearing on February 25, 2020 ended on an excellent note when James Brower was on a roll laying out what we need to do and likening this struggle with the struggle of Richland County during the irrigation case in federal court. On all counts, James is correct.
Our sons, Leif and Cedric, perform a repertoire fur trade era and other 19th century music. They dress in period-appropriate clothing and play on era-authentic guitar, banjo, bones, and other instruments. Between songs they give spoken historical explanations. They perform as Eric and Arty of the Upper Missouri.
This takes them to a variety of venues where the history of those eras is being preserved and re-enacted. In one instance, western artist C. Michael Dudash was present for an informal evening around a campfire. He made Leif the subject of a new work of art, titled "Six Stringer." The work is oil on linen, 16" h x 12" w, dated 2/9/17.
The March-April 2019 issue of Art of the West features it on the cover. Dudash says, page 9,
As a lifelong musician -- guitar, piano, mandolin -- it's only natural that paintings of pickers and players would be of special interest to me. The banjo is one of the truly original American instruments and comes with either four, five, or six strings and is strummed and played in several different ways. The six string is probably the rarest. I've seen only a couple in my day, and I actually had one several years back. I tuned it like a guitar. Painting old timers by campfire light is always challenging, but loads of fun."
The cover story by Sara Gilbert Frederick is about Dudash, titled "I’ll Never Retire; I’ll Always Paint."
Debra Gilbert, Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, and I were privileged to be presenters at the Emergency Management Forum in Helena at the beginning of this month.
The Forum is organized by the Montana Department of Military Affairs, Disaster and Emergency Services Division. It brings together people working in a wide variety of organizations and roles to provide disaster and emergency services. There were people from all across Montana, from state agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from the North Dakota DES, from private relief agencies, and from industry.
The Forum was held for 3 days. Debra and I presented on Day 2. The theme of that day was Mutual Aid. I presented a paper that I wrote for the Forum titled, “Guide to Montana Mutual Aid Statutes .” Montana has over a dozen mutual aid statutes, and this has been a source for confusion and obstacles in achieving mutual aid during disasters and emergencies. My presentation surveyed the many statutes and simplified the process of using the right statute in the right way to make mutual aid happen.
Debra led a panel discussion on mutual aid, “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” The discussion was of a very practical, rubber-meets-the-road nature and engaged the Forum with actual real-world examples. The session was especially helpful because, like so many when they first take on DES positions in county government, at first she says she had little idea what she was supposed to do. She charted a course for digging in, discovering the role, forming networks, and making mutual aid happen.
Unlike many such meetings, this Forum was productive in that we accumulated a list of action points and projects to pursue. Debra and I are working on interstate mutual aid agreement templates which can be so important to our own county because we are right on the border with North Dakota. We also learned the value of assembling an inventory of disaster and emergency assets for ourselves and to share with neighboring counties and the state DES.
Richland County asked the Montana Association of Counties to prepare a bill for the 2019 Montana Legislature to provide specific relief from land use regulation.
The bill gives county commissioners discretion to lift restrictive agricultural covenants from land that is leaving agricultural use but is going into a public use.
A law like this recently would have saved our rural electric cooperative over $80,000 in useless and time-consuming subdivision regulation studies. Since the cooperative will be using the land for an electrical substation to serve the residents of our county, there really was no reason for an expensive study of drinking water and sewer regulations. With this law, when local county commissioners can see that the regulations are useless, expensive, and a waste of time, they will be able to lift the restrictions.
In the photograph above, standing on the right is Loren H. Young, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, at the bill signing with the Governor of the State of Montana.
Testifying for local discretion and entitlements before the Montana legislature; and working for local infrastructure
During a visit to the Montana State Capitol to testify before committees of the Montana House of Representatives and work on legislation with the Montana Infrastructure Coalition. Our Commissioner, Shane Gorder, is the Chair of the Coalition.
Pictured from left to right, Mayor Rick Norby, Craig Steinbeisser, Tom Halvorson, Representative Joel Krauter, Commissioner Shane Gorder, City Clerk Jessica Redfield, and Commissioner Loren Young.
Commissioners Gorder and Young and I had the opportunity to support a bill that would let the county commissioners lift restrictive agricultural covenants from land that is leaving agricultural use, but is going into a public use. A law like this recently would have saved our rural electric cooperative over $80,000 in useless subdivision regulation studies. Since the cooperative will be using the land for an electrical substation to serve the residents of our county, there really was no reason for an expensive study of drinking water and sewer regulations. This bill was drafted by the Montana Association of Counties at the request of the Board of County Commissioners of Richland County.
I had the opportunity to defend the local government entitlement share from being raided to enable continued mismanagement and wasteful overspending the state Office of Public Defender. The Montana Association of Counties had about 70 members in attendance. Its Executive Director, Eric Bryson, spoke against the raid, as did many county commissioners from around the state. From my experience in criminal defense for 23 years, with 5.5 of those years as local public defender by contract with the county, and 18 years as deputy county attorney prosecuting crimes, and seeing what has happened with the Office of Public Defender, I was able to add information to the hearing that no other witness was in a position to provide. This all was a stroke of luck because the matter popped up like a jack-in-a-box without notice, and we happened to be in Helena for the Midwinter Conference of the Montana Association of Counties.
We also had the pleasure of seeing former Representative Bob Gilbert and his wife Dee, of Sidney. Bob was appearing before several committees providing information on various bills.
During that same trip to Helena, I had the opportunity to meet with the subdivision bureau chief, engineer, and bureau attorney of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality working on issues for Richland County.
A painting of our son, Leif Eric Halvorson aka Eric of the Upper Missouri is the subject of the forthcoming cover of Art of the West magazine for March/April 2019.
The cover reproduces an original painting by C. Michael Dudash titled, "Six Stringer." For this study, Dudash used his live observations of Eric rendering authentic Fur Trade Era and other early songs accompanied on period-appropriate banjo. The original is an oil on linen work 16" h x 12" w, completed on February 9, 2017.
The magazine announced the forthcoming cover on Facebook here. You can see much more from Art of the West at its website here.
Art Of The West
China Virus Disease
Church And State
C Michael Dudash
Disaster And Emergency Services
Environmental Quality Council
Eric And Artie Of The Upper Missouri
Eric Of The Upper Missouri
Fort Union Muzzleloaders
Lewis & Clark Station
Loren H. Young
Montana Association Of Counties
Montana Dakota Utilities
Montana Infrastructure Coalition
Public Service Commission
Richland County Commissioners