2017 Year in Review: A review of some of the top local stories from January to June

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January

ARP funding still on hold: After months of waiting, there was no indication when the Asbestos Resource Program’s federal grant would be taken off a temporary hold put in place in Sept., 2016, after the Environmental Protection Agency evaluated the legality of past grant spending. The evaluation began in May 2016, when Lincoln County commissioners asked the federal agency for guidance after discovering R. Allen Payne and his legal firm, Doney Crowley Bloomquist Payne UDA, had received payments from the grant funds, which were found to be against federal grant funding regulations.

A new funding agreement eventually would be reached in the fall, but with the approach of 2018 the evaluation was still underway.

Murder in the Yaak: Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe confirmed that Travis Gillett of Sandpoint, Idaho, found dead in the Yaak Jan. 16, died after being shot multiple times. The investigation started on Jan. 14, when 31-year-old Gillett was reported missing in Bonner County, Idaho. At 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 16, someone called 911 to report that their friend, Gillett, had left Sandpoint, Idaho on Jan. 13 with someone from Thompson Falls in a dark blue or green pickup to make a delivery somewhere in the Yaak. The caller reported that Gillett told the caller that they would be back sometime the next day. Gillett was then deemed a missing person.

On Aug. 24, an Idaho couple — Ezra Skinner, 28, and Sarah Carpenter Skinner, 27 — was arrested on suspicion of deliberate homicide in connection with Gillett’s death.

State agrees to pay asbestos victims $24 million: The state of Montana agreed to pay just over $24 million to victims of asbestos disease to settle claims that state health officials did not warn Libby residents about the toxic exposure created by the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine.

The settlement provided parallel agreements for two sets of asbestos victims. Forty percent of the settlement would be disbursed to asbestos victim claimants within 30 days of the court approval, with the remainder of the settlement provided by July 31. Attorneys would get 33 percent of the settlement and were paying for the cost of the litigation.

This settlement completed a second round of litigation between Libby asbestos victims and the state of Montana.

February

Darren Coldwell hired as county administrator: Troy Mayor Darren Coldwell was hired as Lincoln County’s new county administrator, a position he would assume Feb. 20. District 1 Commissioner Mark Peck had been serving as interim county administrator since Aug. 1, 2015 after Bill Bischoff resigned as the county’s administrative assistant. Coldwell was allowed to finish out his term as Troy mayor. The county administrator is in charge of getting bids on projects, budgets and putting commissioners’ meeting agenda together. He also deals with internal, administrative issues, and deals with the public when an individual has something they want to put on the County Commissioners’ agenda.

Forest unveils Capitol Christmas tree logo: In conjunction with the news that the Kootenai National Forest was selected in late 2016 to provide the 2017 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree,forest officials designed a logo to accompany it. “The Beauty of the Big Sky logo conveys the message that this tree is uniquely Montana,” a press release stated. “Reminiscent of a snow globe in shape, the logo captures the essence of Montana. The grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, is Montana’s state animal. The tree resembles an Engelmann spruce. The purple and gold colors represent the plains and mountains of the state. Montana’s state outline provides a solid base.”

Libby fire chief celebrates 45 years of service: Libby fire chief Tom Wood — whose father also served as fire chief — was presented with a commemorative plaque for 45 years service as a dedicated volunteer and leader. Famous locally for leaving his wedding minutes after the ceremony to answer a fire call, Tom said that his wife, Melanie, told him “you were a firefighter before you were my husband,” with characteristic understanding.

March

Troy juvenile facility most likely to close: Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe announced that the Troy Juvenile Detention Facility would close, leaving only three juvenile detention facilities to remain in Montana. After years of having trouble spending the amount budgeted by the county, keeping qualified staff and experiencing costly overtime from their employees, the news didn’t come as a surprise. “Financially, it makes sense,” the facility’s director Pam Norman said. “I feel fortunate that we’ve been able to run the last few years, actually, because we know that the numbers have not been good.” Undersheriff Brandon Huff said the decision was never a reflection of the facility or the personnel. “This really comes down to a dollars and cents decision,” he said.

Jail ‘beyond crisis state’: Sheriff Roby Bowe and Undersheriff Brandon Huff met with the county commissioners to discuss their concerns with the overcrowded jail, overworked detention officers and potential future plans. Huff said that in 2010 the average inmate per detention officer in Montana was one per 4. A fully staffed jail, Huff said, is at minimum about one per 12. For the previous month, the Libby jail average had been one detention officer per 35 inmates, Huff said.

April

Montanore lawsuit coming to a head: A year-long lawsuit from environmental groups challenging the OK of the Montanore Mine approval reportedly would soon end after U.S. District Judge Don Molloy promised a decision within two weeks. A coalition of environmental groups including Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks and Defenders of Wildlife wanted the a Fish and Wildlife Services biological opinion that OK’d the project overturned.

Former Libby mayor sues Western News: Former Libby Mayor Doug Roll sued The Western News for alleged defamation, civil conspiracy and actual malice related to newspaper articles written in 2016 by then-editor Robert “Bob” Henline. Roll served as mayor for eight years, but resigned Sept. 7, 2016, following a recall attempt and subsequent court ruling that Roll said “fully exonerated” him. “After all the bad press, thousands of dollars in attorneys fees expended, loss of trust with the city of Libby council members, [Roll] had no choice but to resign in the face of his lost reputation,” the lawsuit alleges. “The public shaming made it impossible to do his job.”

May

Allen Olsen resigns from Libby City Council: After serving a bit more than five years on the Libby City Council, a period rife with controversy, contention and drama that often found him sparring with city attorneys and fellow council members and in which he prevailed against a city lawsuit against him, Allen Olsen announced his resignation effective April 27. As a single dad running three businesses, he said “it’s just become overwhelming and so it was just time for me (to leave).” Having decided to run for City Council to fight what he saw as corruption in its ranks, Olsen said he’s “very proud” of what he and like-minded residents had accomplished.

Ryggs Johnston claims state golf by 14 strokes, sets record: In Shelby, Libby sophomore Ryggs Johnston fired 5-under-par 67 in the final round at the Class B state golf tournament to easily defend his title from last season and set a new all-class record for low 36-hole score, finishing at 16-under-par 128. Johnston shot a 34 on the front nine and a 33 on the back to win the tournament by 14 strokes over Missoula Loyola sophomore Bucky Crippen. Johnston had set the all-class record last season at Pryor Creek Golf Club in Huntley, a par-71 course, carding an 11-under 131. He now has the two lowest scores in state and Class B history.

Libby church targets jobs creation with ammo business: In 2015, after seeing too many people reluctantly leave Lincoln County to find work elsewhere, Minister Phil Alspaw and 15 or so other members of Libby Christian Church sat around a conference room table. “We started kicking around what the church might do to change that dynamic and bring jobs to Lincoln County,” Alspaw said. Several hours of economic development talk followed. The group’s aim was to establish a manufacturing ministry. Alspaw said they started with caskets — and ended with bullets. Kootenai River Ammunition’s inaugural product would be a .223-caliber bullet.

June

County commission requests seventh — and final — extension to Stinger Welding grant: The Lincoln County Commission agreed to request for the seventh time an extension to a Montana Department of Commerce grant awarded to Stinger Welding in 2009. All three commissioners agreed it would be the last such request. When it was awarded, the grant was contingent upon Stinger Welding creating 96 jobs that paid the average county wage and lasted for at least two years. In 2015, the requirements were expanded to include jobs created at the site now being developed as Kootenai Business Park. As of the extension, 75 jobs fitting the grant’s requirements had been created.

Cathie Warren sentenced, fined and told to repay county: Cathie Warren, found guilty in April of eight felony animal cruelty charges and one misdemeanor animal cruelty charge, was sentenced for a total of 16 years of probation, all to run consecutive, fir the felony counts. For the misdemeanor count she got six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Warren was also required to pay $67,432.42 restitution to Lincoln County during her probation and to forfeit all the animals seized from her property outside Libby in August 2016, including puppies born in custody. Altogether officials seized 54 dogs, six donkeys and dozens of other animals.

Resigning Libby chamber president falsified resume, has forgery and identity fraud convictions: A Western News investigation revealed that Libby Area Chamber of Commerce Board President Robert Calvin “Bob” Henline fabricated portions of his resume to gain employment in the community. In addition, he pleaded guilty to forgery, a third-degree felony, in 2001 and identity fraud, also a third-degree felony, in 2010. Henline is a former reporter and editor for this newspaper.

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