2017 Year in Review: A review of some of the top local stories from July to December

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July

County takes first step toward jail expansion with site tour, discussion: A Montana Association of Counties representative who toured Lincoln County Jail said he was “fully behind” the county’s preliminary idea to expand the facility’s capacity — possibly almost tripling the number of cells — by using the jail’s existing space. “I compliment you guys on this problem solving,” said Jim Muskovich. “One of the toughest things to do is decide to take the first step.” The next step is to find the money to fund engineering and architectural studies and to determine the cost and direction of a path forward.

State let Libby down with shortened sidewalk project, council member says: A sidewalk to provide Libby Elementary School students and other pedestrians safe passage on Balsam Street came up short — about five blocks short — and city officials said the Montana Department of Transportation, which granted most of the funding, was responsible. “I don’t know how MDT can suggest this is anywhere near meeting their mission,” said City Council Member Kristin Smith. “(The resulting project) falls so far from needed improvement.” Funded by a grant that was approved in the spring of 2014, the project lagged, Smith said, because even though the grant program essentially wasn’t new it was being administered in a new way. In addition, the state and the city disagreed on engineering and other aspects of the project.

Rep. Greg Gianforte attends Hecla presentation in Libby: Rep. Greg Gianforte came to Libby to attend a presentation at Hecla Mining Company’s office on Highway 2. The meeting was part of the congressman’s effort “to see on the ground what’s happening” in the state he had recently been elected to represent in Washington, D.C. Luke Russell of Hecla got Gianforte up to speed on the company’s past, present and proposed mining projects in the area, including the reclamation underway at Troy Mine and the status of proposed mining development at Rock Creek and Montanore mines. In discussing the latter two projects, Russell noted the permitting, regulatory and court hurdles the company has faced in moving forward and specified some areas in which it would like to see reform — items in which Gianforte indicated he would seek to affect change. “We are the treasure state, but we can’t get at our treasure,” Gianforte said. “I believe we can develop natural resources and protect the environment both.”

August

Delegation returns ‘hopeful’ after trip to D.C. on behalf of Hecla mines: Community representatives from Lincoln County that went to Washington, D.C. to ask federal agencies to approve the evaluation phase of Hecla Mining Company’s Montanore “were pleased with the meetings” they had with officials. “We went to D.C. to drive home the need to staff those agencies so their work can be accomplished and the projects can move forward in months and not years,” Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett said. The delegation — Bennett, along with Libby Public Schools Superintendent Craig Barringer, Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett, Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker, Kootenai River Development Council Executive Director Tina Oliphant, W. F. Morrison Elementary Principal Diane Rewerts, and President Bruce Vincent of Environomics in Libby — met with the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and Montana’s federal delegation.

Idaho couple arrested on suspicion of killing man found shot dead in the Yaak: An Idaho couple was arrested on suspicion of the deliberate homicide of Travis Gillett, found shot to death January in the Yaak. Ezra Skinner, 28, and Sarah Carpenter Skinner, 27, were ordered held without bail. Neither Ezra Skinner nor Carpenter have federal criminal records in the states of Idaho or Montana, according to U.S. District Court records. Authorities believe Gillett, 31, was killed between Jan. 13 and Jan. 16, 2017.

Citing fire danger, Lincoln County Commission declares emergency: The Lincoln County Commission declared a state of emergency in Lincoln County due to “significant wildfire activity” that was “threatening public safety (and) private property.” The declaration was a procedural move that will allow the county to request state funding should the county spend more than $70,000 responding to an emergency such as the Gibralter Ridge fire, though if the county were to apply for state assistance, there would be no guarantee it would be granted. The declaration noted “unprecedented wildland fire conditions,” “extreme drought” and that “local fire response resources are operating at full capacity.”

September Libby medical marijuana ordinance voted down: An ordinance to allow and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries within Libby city limits was voted down after months of being worked out in committee meetings and despite being based on recommendations previously made by the city planning board. “It’s a little unorthodox to have something come out of committee, having been fairly thoroughly addressed and vetted, (and then) have a committee member vote against it,” Committee member Kristin Smith said. “It was a real blindside.” City Council members Smith, Gary Armstrong and Brian Zimmerman voted in support of the ordinance and Peggy Williams, Gary Beach and Angel Ford voted against it. Mayor Brent Teske’s broke the tie by voting no.

’This is our Harvey,’ commissioner says of wildfires facing Lincoln County: News of progress on each of the most threatening wildfires facing Lincoln County has been positive the past couple days — the Caribou’s two straight days of slow growth, the doubling of personnel assigned to the West Fork fire, the assignment of any personnel to the Moose Peak, not to mention the assumption of command by a crack incident management team out of the Rocky Mountains. But the challenges the county and its residents face have just begun. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck. “People need to be vigilant, to listen and to pay attention. This is unprecedented, this isn’t a normal disaster. This is our (Hurricane) Harvey.”

Marcia Boris appointed interim county attorney: “Out with the old and in with the new.” So said Bernard “Bernie” Cassidy, retiring Lincoln County Attorney, moments before the Lincoln County Commission appointed Deputy County Attorney Marcia Boris as his interim replacement. “I just want to congratulate you guys on making I think a very good decision,” Cassidy said. “I’m completely comfortable with riding off into the sunset with Marcia at the helm and Jeff (Zwang) as her assistant.” Boris’ interim appointment means that, if she decides to do so, she must run for election in 2018. Her application to be county attorney was the only application the county received.

October

Lady Loggers win Northwest A volleyball district championship: The Libby Lady Loggers came back from 0-2 to defeat Columbia Falls 22-25, 23-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-12 in a championship match. “Columbia Falls pushed us to the limit,” Coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston said. “We played uptight and they played like they had nothing to lose. I am very proud of the girls for fighting back from (being) down 0-2. Hopefully that experience will prepare us for divisionals.”

The Lady Loggers would go into the divisionals undefeated, only to lose twice to Corvallis, 3-2 and 3-1.

Trevor Mercier gets life sentence with no parole for deliberate homicide of Sheena Devine: Trevor Mercier of Libby, convicted Aug. 10 of deliberate homicide in the October 2016 death of Sheena Devine, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. “Sir, you have been convicted of the most serious crime that we have in Montana, and you have been convicted of doing it in the most violent way it can be done,” Judge Matt Cuffe said. Devine’s body was found in her home by her two young daughters on Oct. 6, 2016. Investigators arrested Mercier in his home the following day after identifying him as a prime suspect in her death. Mercier and Devine had been in a relationship that had ended before the incident. In court it came out that the night of Devine’s death, she and Mercier had fought after Mercier threw a rock at her car, smashing its windshield. “Anyone who would react in that way to a breakup is a danger to society,” Cuffe said to Mercier before sentencing him.

Libby City Council agrees to settlement and resolution to close case: With two 5-0 votes of the Libby City Council, the city closed a case in which Montana’s former Commissioner of Political Practices determined that state campaign finance laws were violated during Libby’s 2013 mayoral election. In the first vote, the City Council agreed to a settlement proposed in mid-July by Jeffrey Mangan, Montana’s current Commissioner of Political Practices, concerning Magill v. Reintsma, City of Libby, et al. In the second vote, the City Council agreed to a resolution establishing a “Transparency in Government” week to take place the first week of June from 2018 to 2021. The resolution was one of the stipulations set forth in the agreement. Timed to occur prior to filing deadlines for candidates of local and municipal offices, the week’s purpose “should be to provide information on how local and municipal government works.” As a result of the two votes, “the Commissioner agrees not to pursue any further administrative or court proceedings” against the defendants, and the city acknowledges a “Summary of Facts and Finding” Motl issued on May 12, 2015, in which he determined the defendants “failed to comply with certain campaign finance and practices laws and administrative regulations.”

November

20 Left jobless after fire destroys Libby mill: A blaze that kept firefighters busy for 18 hours destroyed two SK Fingerjoint buildings in Libby’s Kootenai Business Park and left about 18-20 people out of work. The buildings were unoccupied at the time of the fire. “It’s a damn shame,” Brent Teske, Lincoln County’s emergency management planner and Libby’s mayor, said as he watched the fire and considered the business’s significance to Libby’s economy. “It makes you sick.” Twenty-four firefighters — one of whom was treated at the scene for a minor burn to a hand — responded to the huge blaze. Fire officials said an insufficient supply of water at the site hindered firefighting efforts.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office determined arson was not to blame.

Former Stinger Welding facility offered for $3.415 million: The building that once housed Stinger Welding in Libby’s Kootenai Business Park was put on the market for $3,415,000. The listing followed an agreement made Nov. 8 between the Lincoln County Port Authority and Fisher Industries, which owns the facility. The two entities had been involved in outside-of-court mediation for about six months to determine each party’s percentage of ownership of the property, among other items including the handling of outstanding tax liens on the property.

Libby and Troy send off the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree: Libby and Troy residents gathered to see off the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree — commonly known as “The People’s Tree” — at the beginning stages of its journey to Washington, D.C. After a ceremony on the Libby High School practice field, attended by all local students and including performances by the Libby High School Band and the Libby Schools Student Choir, the tree was brought to Troy for another ceremony. Libby and Troy were the third and fourth stops, respectively, the tree made on its roughly 3,000 mile journey to Washington, D.C.

December

Lincoln County to reassess Port Authority structure: In the wake of a Nov. 9 meeting about redeveloping the 400-acre Lincoln County Port Authority site in Libby — as well as ongoing concerns from residents and potential entrepreneurs — the Lincoln County Commission signaled it was time to restructure management of the Port Authority to improve the site’s viability. “It’s prudent that we reassess where things are at,” said Commissioner Mark Peck. “Any organization that’s been in existence for 14 years should be looking at itself.” Lincoln County in 2003 created the Port Authority — a quasi-governmental organization — to develop the commercial and industrial site, which the county acquired after Stimson Lumber Company left it in 2002. The Port Authority was set up to be governed by a nine-member volunteer board whose members the Commission appoints for five-year terms.

County announces replacement for outgoing Asbestos Resource Program manager: Lincoln County named Noah Pyle as the replacement for Nick Raines, the outgoing manager of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resource Program. Pyle had been the Program’s resource coordinator for the previous two years. “Nick has left big shoes for me to fill,” Pyle said. “His institutional knowledge of the program’s history and the project’s history was an invaluable resource to the ARP.” Raines left for a job with Hecla Mining Company. The Asbestos Resource Program, or ARP, operates out of the Lincoln County Environmental Health Department. Established in 2012 to provide education and outreach about asbestos exposure as a result of the Libby Asbestos Superfund site, the program is funded by a cooperative agreement and grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Two men caught flying drugs into Libby sign plea agreements: The two Libby men authorities caught flying Spokane-sourced drugs into Lincoln County Airport on Sept. 13 signed plea agreements and were scheduled for sentencing. Hugh Shawgo and Michael Norton signed plea agreements on Dec. 13. Both will be sentenced April 5, 2018 in the Russell Smith Courthouse in Missoula.

Shawgo pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He also agreed to forfeit a handgun. Norton pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and agreed to forfeit an airplane, rifle with high-capacity magazine and a 1999 Chevrolet Corvette.

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