2018 in Review: Top local stories from January to June

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Join your Western News as we take a look back at the first half of 2018, and a few of the moments that stood out in the news. In next week's paper, we will go through the second half of the year. Check out this feature online to see links to the original stories.




• 1/5 Abrupt facility closure leaves officials, providers scrambling

The year-end closure of the Western Montana Mental Health Center's Libby facility left government agencies and healthcare facilities scrambling to fill the void.

The Libby facility and one in Dillon were both closed following cuts state lawmakers made in November 2017 to address a $227 million deficit.

According to then Lincoln County Public Health Department employee Jennifer McCully the mid-December announcement of the imminent closure was unexpected.

The Mental Health Center contracted with Lincoln County to provide mental health services in crisis situations.

The Lincoln County Commission held a special meeting Dec. 27, 2017, to address how to respond to the closure. In addition to the commissioners and McCully and other local health officials, it included representatives from local law enforcement and the courthouse.

Among other items, the group discussed hiring contract employees as a short-term fix.


• 1/23 Angel Ford resigns from Libby City Council

Angel Ford resigned from the Libby City Council Jan. 19 due to “mounting political pressure” from Libby residents and media concerning past legal issues.

Ford wrote that she felt “it's in the best interest for all” for her to resign “in order to prevent any further embarrassment directed towards the Libby City Council.”

On Jan. 19, The Western News reported two stories: one about how Ford's explanation of a 2011 identity theft conviction has differed from official reports, and another about how Ford was fined in 2005 for mailing a campaign postcard under her opponent's name while campaigning for City Council in Hoquiam, Washington.

See also: “City Council to require background checks” and “City Council: New rules for appointing council members”


• 1/26 County Commission revises Port Authority Board

The Lincoln County Commission unanimously approved a resolution to restructure the board that governs the Lincoln County Port Authority in Libby on Jan. 24.

Resolution 999 dissolved the previous nine-person board and replaced it with a new, five-person board which includes the three county commissioners.

The decision followed a series of public discussions the Commission began at its Nov. 29 meeting. The county created the the Port Authority in 2003 to develop the site now known as Kootenai Business Park — formerly Stimson Lumber Company up to 2002.

Throughout its discussions the Commission has asserted it was not seeking to dissolve the Port Authority, only to restructure its governance, and Resolution 999 underscores this by otherwise upholding the provisions of Resolution 609 that established the Port Authority in 2003.




• 2/6 Commissioners say they haven't set out to ban medical marijuana

For the third consecutive week, the Lincoln County Commission at its Jan. 31 meeting tried to calm fears of medical marijuana proponents who were worried the commissioners were planning to ban medical marijuana sales in Lincoln County.

The proponents' concerns arose after the Jan. 3 Commission meeting, during which the commissioners started an ongoing discussion to determine whether or how to regulate medical marijuana.

The commissioners have stated they are not targeting either the dispensary or the patients it serves, but rather are fulfilling their duties as a governing body to understand their authority and determine how to proceed.


• 2/27 Port Authority pays off Stinger Welding Grant

The Lincoln County Port Authority paid $141,586.20 to close a grant awarded years ago to Stinger Welding that failed to create the jobs it was contingent on.

The County Commission authorized the payment at its Feb. 21 meeting.

Stinger Welding in 2010 received the roughly $705,000 Big Sky Trust Fund grant with the stipulation that it create 96 jobs paying the average county wage — $13.55 an hour at the time — for at least 35 hours a week and lasting at least two years.

Hitting the jobs target proved challenging, and the Port Authority annually requested and was granted extensions to allow for more time. In 2015, following Stinger Welding's 2013 bankruptcy and closure, the Montana Department of Commerce tried to ease the task by expanding the grant's guidelines to include jobs created throughout Kootenai Business Park.

When the county commissioners agreed May 24, 2017, to request a seventh extension, they said it would be the last.

According to a letter accompanying the closeout payment, Lincoln County documented the creation of 75 jobs fitting the grant's requirements.

It is not known how many of those still exist.




• 3/23 Armstrong resigns from Libby City Council

Citing health and family reasons, Libby City Council member Gary Armstrong announced his resignation in a letter dated March 20 and sent to the mayor, council members, local media and the Lincoln County Elections Office. His resignation was effective March 31.

The health reasons Armstrong cited in his letter were a transient ischemic attack — commonly referred to as TIA or 'mini-stroke' — he suffered last September, and a bad case of tinnitus that makes it difficult for him to hear and causes him to frequently “lose the thread of a conversation.”

Armstrong also cites the ailing health of his 90-year-old father-in-law and his desire to help his wife and mother-in-law care for him.

Armstrong wrote he will miss working with City of Libby staff, Mayor Brent Teske, and his fellow council members.


• 3/23 Libby City Council appoints Taylor on second try to fill seat

Following two rounds of applications and interviews — and allegations it had run afoul of the law for doing so — the Libby City Council on March 19 appointed Hugh Taylor to fill the seat left vacant by Angel Ford's Jan. 19 resignation.

Taylor was appointed at the end of a special 6 p.m. meeting that included moments of heated debate between one of the applicants and some of the council members.

Asked why he applied again after being turned down, he said “I believe in Libby and I want to try to help. That's my only motivation. I don't own any property, I don't own a business, I don't have anything to gain other than trying to help Libby.”


• 3/23 DEQ says HECLA CEO violating act

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality on March 22 notified Hecla Mining Company and its CEO that they are in violation of Montana's Metal Mine Reclamation Act and have 30 days to provide a notice of intent to comply, a DEQ news release states.

The decision follows a request a handful of conservation groups made late last October for the DEQ to suspend state permits for the two mines — Montanore and Rock Creek — Hecla Mining Company has proposed near Libby and Noxon.

The group asked the DEQ to enforce the act's “bad actor” provision, arguing that Hecla is led by a former top official of Pegasus Gold Incorporated, whose Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines polluted the environment, threatening fish and contaminating sacred Native American sites.

The former top Pegasus Gold official is Phillips S. Baker, Hecla's president and CEO. He served as vice president and chief financial officer in his prior position.

“Montana's 'bad actor' provision of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act prohibits a person from conducting mining or exploration activities in Montana if that person was a principal or controlling member of a business entity for which DEQ received bond proceeds,” explains a statement from the DEQ attributed to Director Tom Livers and provided to The Western News.

Pegasus eventually filed for bankruptcy, the very case that prompted the Montana legislature in 2001 to add the “bad actor” provision to the Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

According to the DEQ, Hecla and Baker can do one of two things to comply with the act — pay all necessary costs the DEQ incurs in reclaiming the Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain Mine Sites, or “demonstrate that Baker is no longer mining or conducting exploration activities in Montana.”

“We strongly disagree with the state's decision,” Luke Russell, Hecla's vice president of external affairs, told The Western News on March 20. “We believe they have misinterpreted the statute and we're going to defend the company aggressively to challenge this decision.”


• 3/23 HECLA files complaint against DEQ

Hecla Mining Company has filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and its director, following that agency's decision that the mining company and its CEO are in violation of Montana's Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

The complaint was filed March 23 in Montana 19th Judicial District Court in Libby.

“The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has misinterpreted the statue and Hecla will vigorously challenge the decision,” Luke Russell, Hecla's vice president of external affairs, said via news release.

Russell also contends that Baker “was not the controlling entity at Pegasus” and is not the applicant for the mining permits Hecla seeks for the Montanore mine near Libby and Rock Creek mine near Noxon.

The DEQ decision follows a request a handful of conservation groups made late last October for the DEQ to suspend state permits for the two mines. The groups include the Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets, which are represented by the law firm Earthjustice.


• 3/30 Helping children read is own reward

For 20 years off and on, Alberta Savage volunteered at W.F. Morrison Elementary School in Troy to help children with their reading.

On March 14, first grade teacher Debbie Garrett, who was retiring, had her class write up and illustrate stories that Savage had shared with them about her 88 years of life, from her childhood to the present.

The children also wrote thank you notes to Savage that Garrett put at the end of the book. In them, they wrote things they liked about her.

“Some of it's really cute, about how they like her eyes, her clothes, the way she smells — her hair, how it shines,” Garrett said.

As Garrett retires, Savage said she was unsure whether she will continue. She has wanted to spend more time with family.

But being involved in her community has always been a part of Savage's life, she said.

“I think if you like kids and you really want to make a bit of a difference, you could surely do it here,” Savage said. “Everybody should spend some time volunteering somewhere.”




• 4/6 A donation of life

For three teachers at Libby Elementary School, National Kidney Month in March and National Donate Life month in April have a very personal significance.

Mary Gier, Mary Miller and Julie Sagissor all feel they owe their lives to the kindness of someone willing to give a kidney.

None of the three Libby teachers feel they can ever pay back the life-saving sacrifices of their donors, but all said they hope they could inspire someone else to save a life.

The most common source of kidney donations at Sacred Heart — where all three women received their transplants — is from friends and family members, said Brenda Fairman, the transplant program manager.

There are a few of what they call “altruistic donors,” people with no connection to someone with kidney disease who volunteer to be a living donor only because they want to help a stranger, said Donnetta Cole, Sacred Heart's donor transplant coordinator.

Some years there may be five altruistic donors. Other years there may be only one.


• 4/6 Troy principal awarded state organization's top honor

W.F. Morrison Elementary School Principal Diane Rewerts said she was humbled to be awarded one of the highest recognitions given out by the Montana Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals during the Montana Principals Conference in Anaconda on April 5.

In the nomination form prepared by staff and administrators, including Superintendent Jacob Francom and Special Education Director Christina Schertel, Rewerts' leadership is cited as contributing to “an inviting, safe and secure environment where each student feels valued.”

With about 38 years in education, Rewerts said she had considered retiring after this school year, but has decided to only cut down her hours next year.

“I am just not ready to completely give it up,” she said. “I just enjoy the people too much, enjoy the work too much.”

“Every day I walk in and just feel happy to be there,” she said.


• 4/20 Rob Dufficy appointed to Libby City Council

The Libby City Council once again has six full seats with the appointment of Rob Dufficy, who fills the opening created by Gary Armstrong's resignation in March.

Dufficy had applied for the appointment alongside William Holcomb and D.C. Orr. The three men were interviewed, and Dufficy selected, at a special City Council meeting held April 18.

It was Dufficy's second interview in front of the council — and Holcomb and Orr's third — in recent weeks. All three applied to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation in January of Angel Ford.

Dufficy, who told the City Council that he retired to Libby in 2006, previously spent three years on the Libby Library board, serving as president during the third year.


• 4/27 Giant racquet honors community tennis supporter

A memorial to late Libby resident and community tennis supporter Rich Thompson has been erected between the tennis courts he helped build.

The memorial to Thompson, who died in 2016 of cancer, is an oversized tennis racquet that was built over the winter and recently finished with a paint job that had to wait for spring weather.

Thompson built tennis courts for a living, and when it came time to build six for Libby in 2008, “he not only built them at a reduced cost, but loaned money (to U Serve Libby) as well,” said Dave Nelson of U Serve Libby Inc., a nonprofit that supports community tennis in Libby and on whose board Thompson served.

Thompson “was a big helper to keep tennis and golf going” during times when those activities were dropped from local schools, Nelson explained. Thompson often loaned his vans to shuttle athletes to and from sporting events and sometimes drove the students himself, Nelson said.




• 5/1 National Honor Society honors Libby scholars

This year's National Honor Society induction ceremony at Libby High School was filled with hope, humor and humility, with the two brothers named to the school's Distinguished Graduate Hall of Fame also given the honor of addressing the 10 students chosen this year to enter the society.

Terry Fennessey and Tim Fennessey, from the classes of 1973 and 1975, respectively, and themselves National Honor Society members, were inducted into the Distinguished Graduate Hall of Fame April 23 at the Libby Memorial Events Center.

Tim Fennessey said he “was very humbled, because there are a lot of people from Libby that have done a lot of great things, and many in my own age group,” while Terry Fennessey said it “was a great honor” and “pretty much a surprise” to be inducted alongside his brother and in the footsteps of their father, who was inducted to the Distinguished Graduate Hall of Fame in 2001.

Terry Fennessey said, “To follow my dad into the Hall of Fame was really an exciting triumph for me.”


• 5/4 and 5/29 Libby athletes break decades-old records (Links in text)

At the Lincoln County track meet in Eureka, Libby senior Shannon Reny broke a Libby High School record that had stood for 35 years with her 38 foot, 8.25 inch shot put throw, also winning the event.

“This time of year, when we hit the first of May, our conditioning and our training, we start to see the results of it,” said Libby Head Coach Jim May.

In the State Meet in Laurel on May 26, Libby senior Gavin Strom reached 22 feet, 5 inches in the long jump, breaking a Libby High School record that had stood for 42 years.


• 5/10 and 6/26 Dozens celebrate life of Happys Inn man (Additonal links after text)

Over a hundred people gathered at the Kickin Horse Saloon and Eatery in Happys Inn June 23 to remember beloved local handyman and artist Don “Donnie” Smith.

Smith took his own life May 2, hours after destroying property associated with Happy's Roadhouse Inn and evading law enforcement personnel. Many believe a mental health break was to blame.

Debbie Wallace, one of Smith's five sisters, traveled from her southwestern Oregon home to attend Saturday's gathering. She said the last time she saw her brother was a couple summers ago, when he visited her and took it upon himself to help organize her husband George's shop.

“He was always doing stuff,” Wallace said. “He'd give you the shirt of his back.”

While in Arizona, Agnes Kemp of Happys Inn learned it was snowing back home. She called Smith to ask if he could plow her driveway. He started laughing, and said he already plowed it the previous day.

'Everybody knew Donnie'

Don Smith obituary

Search for armed man ends


• 5/29 Troy chief retires from firefighting after 32 years

After 32 years on the department and 28 years as chief, Larry Chapel retired from the Troy Volunteer Fire Department on June 1.

Chief Dustin “Dusty” Welch has been on the department since 2004, and spent the last three years as the second assistant chief. Still, he said he feels the weight of the responsibility that now falls on his shoulders.

“He's been chief forever, so it's tough to answer to anybody else — for all of us,” Welch said.

Roger Gilligan with Troy Volunteer ambulance said he has worked with Chapel for 18 years on a variety of scenes, and has never been disappointed with the Chapel's leadership.

Chapel hesitated to say much about himself. He said he would prefer any attention go to the department as a whole.




• 6/8 Primary election: New sheriff, commissioner chosen

Lincoln County voters in the June 5 primary election effectively chose a new sheriff and District No. 3 commissioner, two races in which the Republican incumbents were opposed only from within their own party.

In the race for sheriff, Libby Police Sgt. Darren Short outpaced Sheriff Roby Bowe, garnering 70 percent of votes to Bowe's 30 percent.

The race for commissioner in District No. 3 — Eureka and its environs — was closer. In that contest, newcomer Josh Letcher tipped sitting Commissioner Mile Cole, with 52 percent of votes to Cole's 47 percent.

Bowe and Cole's terms end Dec. 31.


• 6/15 Nagode ready for next adventure

After 38 years of teaching music and 22 years with the Libby Public Schools, Brenda Nagode still loves her job, but feels it is time to focus on family and finding out what her passions are outside of music.

Her husband, Ty Nagode, has been retired for nine years, she said. “His retirement is going by, and it's not our retirement.”

Nagode said she hadn't made specific plans for retirement, but that she wants to take time to connect more with her family, and even with herself.

“At some point I have to sort of find out about me, and not just my job,” she said.

Nagode has spent most of her teaching career in Troy and Libby, but started in Oklahoma, where she taught in a consolidated school program for three years.

In addition to the students, Nagode said she has enjoyed the school system and the people she has worked with.

“The interest in making sure that Libby is caught up with what's going on with technology, with discipline, with motivation, with building, with best practices — the science of teaching — that's always impressed me,” she said.

Looking back, Nagode said that she has had “the best job in the world.”

“You make your career of teaching kids how to play, and you get to play every day,” she said.


• 6/18 Retiring LHS teacher aims to write Libby's history

A year shy of having taught for 30 years, Libby High School history teacher Jeff Gruber said that now “just felt right” to retire.

Gruber said that he wants to finish a Libby history book he's been working on for 13 years.

“I love the research, I love the story, but I hate not having it done,” he said.

For a timeline, Gruber said he'll begin at the discovery of gold and end with the completion of Libby Dam — not a definitive end of Libby's history, but a practical one, he said.

“I feel deep in my heart that Libby has got a very interesting history and I just want to tell that story,” he said. “For whatever reasons, it seems to just be falling on me to do that.”

“This dang story (of Libby) needs to be told, because it's a good story.”


• 6/22 Grizzly identified that attacked researcher

A 24-year-old male grizzly bear native to — not introduced — the Cabinet-Yaak area was identified as the bear that attacked a researcher in the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby in May.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced the results of its investigation into the attack on June 21. The bear was identified by an analysis of DNA in hair samples collected at the scene.

Amber Kornak, 28, a field assistant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was collecting grizzly hair samples in Poorman Creek Drainage for a genetic study when the attack occurred about 11 a.m. May 17.

After she was attacked, Kornak activated a device that sent out an emergency signal, the news release states. She then walked about two miles to her vehicle and drove another three miles “before encountering another vehicle, which transported her to an ambulance.”

Researchers estimate 53 grizzly bears live in that area, which they call in the news release “a relatively small population.”

“The grizzly bear is not an augmentation bear,” meaning it wasn't introduced from elsewhere, the news release states.


• 6/29 'Life's too short to be unhappy'

Joe Arts built a life around making people happy — and his cars — but mostly people.

“I've always tried to, well, never miss an opportunity to have a good time. And if I'm having a good time, then the people around me are more likely to be having a good time,” he said. “You know, it just kind of spreads.”

That didn't change after Arts was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this spring and told he had months left to live.

“I'm not going to sit here feeling sorry for myself and 'Oh, poor me,'” he said. “I'm going to go out having just as much fun as I possibly can. Life's too short to be unhappy.”

Kelly Matteson, a close friend with Arts for the past six years, said his kindness, honesty and humor drew her to him.

“He never leaves a place without people smiling,” she said.

Arts started in Troy teaching fourth grade in 1973. He spent his final three years teaching fifth grade before retiring in 2006.

As much as he valued making people happy, there was more to things such as giving them pizza with octupus than just having fun.

“I'd tell them, 'Try a piece. If you like it, eat it. If you don't like it, throw it in the wastebasket, but at least try,” he said.

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