Friday, November 29, 2013

Zero Sum Shopping

The Missoulian today is running an editorial exhorting all of us, as we plunge into the annual orgy of Christmas shopping, to remember to buy local. The idea here – and it’s nothing new and certainly not unique to the Missoulian – is that if we all shop locally, we will “keep money in the community” and help local businesses create more jobs.

Well maybe, but there’s more to it than that.

Here’s the problem: if you’ve ever wandered up and down the rows in the Mall parking lot, you’ve probably noticed that a fair share of the cars are not from Missoula county. Missoula, after all, is a regional trade center which brings in lots of shoppers from surrounding communities, counties, states (Idaho) and even countries (Canada).  And spending by those folks helps keep the lights on and people working in lots of Missoula businesses.  If fact, if you compare the earnings of local retail trade workers to the total income of all local local residents, you’ll find that retail trade earnings are substantially greater in Missoula County than they are in the counties around us. In other words, Missoula’s retail trade sector is somewhat outsized, and the reason is that it serves not just Missoulians, but other folks as well.

The Missoulian wants its readers to buy local, because that’s going to give the local economy a boost. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If buying local is good for Missoula, isn’t it good for Hamilton and Ronan and Polson and Deer Lodge and Superior too? If the folks in those towns read the Missoulian editorial and take it to heart, won’t they decide to keep their dollars at home and not shop in Missoula?

The problem here is that shopping locally will benefit Missoula businesses only if we here in Missoula are ones doing it, while everybody else continues to schlep their way into town from outlying areas and shop along with us.  It may work, but it seems to be recommending that we beggar our neighbors across the county line.

This kind of thinking frequently crops up in other contexts, as when we are told that some event that’s on tap for Missoula -  a convention or a football game or a track meet – is going to bring in visitors who will spend a bunch of money.  We count all that spending as a benefit for us or even for the state, forgetting that it means that somewhere around here – maybe Hamilton or Ronan or Polson or Deer Lodge or Superior – somebody is off having a fine time in Missoula and not spending their money at home. For the state as a whole, that amounts to a zero sum game. 

Can We Talk, Please?

Christopher Chavasse  writes, in a letter to today’s Missoulian, that the staff and members of the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission have violated Montana’s open meeting laws by attending private meetings with interested irrigators to answer questions about the CSKT compact. He implies that at these meetings Commission representatives, “with incomes you can only hope for,” brainwash the irrigators in attendance and stray from “points of fact and points of law.”

You’ll have to figure out for yourself, if you can, how Chavasse can pout about being excluded from these meetings and, in the same breath, confidently describe what happens at them. Maybe he’s clairvoyant.

You’ll  also have to figure out for yourself why Chavasse believes that Flathead irrigators – or at least the ones who don’t agree with him -  are so gullible that they can be persuaded to support the compact without reference to the facts or the law. Maybe he figures there’s nobody around as smart as he is.

But when it comes to Montana’s open meeting laws, Chavasse needs a little straightening out.

What these laws refer to are the meetings of public bodies such as the Commission, the Legislature, city councils, and so forth. The laws guarantee that when a quorum of such bodies meets to conduct business, the public has a right to be present.* What the laws do not apply to is meetings of private citizens. No, in this country you are still allowed to meet with whom you want to, where you want to, and to talk about whatever you want to and you don’t have to let Chavasse or any other uninvited guest attend, even if you have asked a public official or employee to come and participate.

Chavasse thinks that this take on the open meeting laws is “weasel-wording” designed to “slick-willie rationalize those secret meetings” and “flout true legislative intent.” Colorful prose aside, I’ve got news for him: if he thinks that legislators intended to write a law that would prohibit them from meeting privately with a group of citizens to discuss some matter of public importance, he’s got another think coming.  That happens all the time. In fact, I’ve got 100 bucks that says that it’s already happened with some of the legislators who oppose the compact.

As far as those incomes are concerned, I at least, and I believe other members of the Commission as well, have attended these private meetings and have been paid absolutely nothing for doing so. When I  attend Commission meetings to do Commission business, I do get paid, but usually it’s less than the minimum wage.

Commission staff is paid, of course, and they attend these meetings because that’s part of the job. And because they are working for the public, it would be wrong for the Commission staff to  meet only with compact supporters. Or to lie to people, as Chavasse somehow concludes they do. But that’s not the way it works. Commission staff will meet with anyone who requests a meeting, and what they will do is provide facts, cite language from the compact, and explain the relevant points of law. They won’t engage in any political schmoozing or character assassination or brain washing or prevaricating. Chavasse should really give that approach a try.

* This is all spelled out in Title 2, Chapter 3, Part 2 of the Montana Code Annotated. Check it out. Click here.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Looking For Civility and Respect

When it comes to the Flathead water compact, there’s a war going on, and the first casualty in this conflict is not just the truth. No - along with the truth, plain old common sense and mutual respect have also gone by the boards.

Case in point: the latest broadside from Catherine Vandemoer.

Vandemoer, or “drkate” as she likes to call herself, is a hydrologist, water policy consultant, and right wing blogger,* who apparently is currently employed by opponents of the Flathead water rights compact to churn out statements on their behalf. And her most recent churning, which you can read here, is a real doozy.

Writing on behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Western Montana, Vandemoer comments on a recent irrigator referendum in the Flathead (more on that in a moment) but along the way slaughters logic, mangles the facts, and abandons civility.

But first a little history. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that the Flathead Joint Board of Control is in utter disarray. The Board, which has represented irrigators in negotiating the compact, last year reached an agreement with the Salish and Kootenai tribes about how water on the Reservation is to be divided between irrigators and in-stream flow. It was a good deal, with all sides giving up a little to gain a lot, including a big chunk of money from the state that would be invested in the irrigation system.

But as it turned out, a group of irrigators, who were not happy with the agreement, succeeded in changing the make-up of the Board, and it’s now demanding significant new concessions from the Tribes, who, of course, a deal being a deal, are not going to make them.

In response to this impasse, the commissioners for the Jocko and Mission irrigation districts - who like the agreement and don’t want to see it torpedoed - voted to withdraw from the Board and go it alone.  And the Board, sensing disaster, tried a variety of maneuvers to keep that from happening, the latest of which was to conduct a non-binding referendum among irrigators, asking them if they wanted to retain the Board as their representative. It’s the results of that referendum that Vandemoer has commented on, so now let’s get back to her.

Voting on the referendum was by acre and there were 36,593 votes in favor of retaining the Board as the irrigators’ representative and 36,588 against, so retaining the Board won by a margin of 5 votes. You might think that pretty much makes it a dead heat, but Vandemoer claims victory. “The results,” she says, “show a majority supports the FJBC with only 30% of project-wide acres against the JBC.” And “importantly, the Mission and Jocko Districts voted to support the FJBC.”

Well, okay, there’s some spinning going on here – the Board's margin of victory, at 5 out of over 73,000 votes, is razor thin, and it’s also true that only 30% of project wide acres support the FJBC – but everybody spins a little. The real problem arises when Vandemoer tries to explain why the Flathead Districtd, the third district making up the Board, voted against retention. And what she concludes is that “this vote reflects confusion over the wording of the referendum itself or intimidation of fellow irrigators by the compact proponents.”

Huh? Forget the “intimidation” business for a moment. Does Vandemoer actually want us to believe that the wording was confusing in the Flathead district, but somehow the exact same wording was not confusing in the Jocko and Mission? No, if confusion reigned anywhere, and it probably did,** it reigned everywhere. And if Vandemoer wants to use confusion to dismiss a vote she doesn’t like, she’s got to dismiss the ones she does like as well.

Since Vandemoer is apparently unable to produce any real evidence of “intimidation,” she can only imply it exists, the evidence being the vote against the Board in the Flathead district. But then what? By the same logic, doesn’t  the vote for the Board in the Mission and Jocko districts mean there is no intimidation? Or worse, that it was Board supporters doing the intimidating in those districts? Or that there was intimidation only in the Flathead district, which is the one district that isn’t trying to leave the Board? Go figure.

If Vandemoer’s reasoning here leaves a lot to be desired, her command over the facts  - or at least the way she represents them - isn’t much better. Here she is describing the Jocko and Mission commissioners who want to withdraw from the Board: “They want to sign the flawed…agreement which already has been ruled an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation.” Pretty serious stuff, until you realize that the ruling in question, which came from District Court judge C.B. McNeil, was tossed out, in its entirety, by the Montana Supreme Court, in short order.

But perhaps the worst thing about Vandemoer’s comments is the disrespect and hostility she heaps on people who happen to disagree with her. In a few short paragraphs, she variously describes compact supporters as “rogue Commissioners,” “petty dictators,” and liars who are “shilling” the compact through “threats and untruths” and “throwing their constituents under the bus.”  The Jocko and Mission commissioners are not “men of character” and they lack the “requisite courage or character to back off their mistakes.” They “wreak unnecessary havoc on their neighbors.” They are “useful idiots.”

Talk about wreaking unnecessary havoc! In whose name does Vandemoer say these vicious things?

Is this really the way the Concerned Citizens of Western Montana want to talk about their neighbors?

Is this really the way the legislators who have touted Vandemoer’s involvement with the compact want their constituents to be treated?

Is this really the way to reach any kind of understanding or agreement?

Three years ago, when we began to negotiate compacts for the Missouri River Breaks National Monument and the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a lot of people out in central Montana were pretty hot under the collar. Ranchers and county commissioners were lawyering up to fight the Federal government. People flooded into public meetings and asked a lot of hard, hostile questions. But everybody kept talking. We met with folks in Winnett, Winifred, Lewistown, Stanford, Malta and Jordan. We met with ranchers is the coulees around Ft. Peck. We met and talked until we were blue in the face, and nobody ever traded outrageous public insults.  No matter how far apart we were on the issues, nobody abandoned civility and or failed to show others the respect they deserved. And in the end we got the deals done - in true Montana style.

 If the Concerned Citizens of Western Montana really want to play a constructive role in bringing about a compact everybody can live with – in true Montana style -  it’s time to jettison the vicious rhetoric and sit down to a respectful and constructive discussion.

* It’s called drkatesview. Click here if you want to look it over.

** As the referendum is worded, a yes vote meant that not only did you want to retain the Board, you also supported its call to reopen the compact. A no vote meant you wanted neither  to retain the Board nor support reopening.  As Dick Erb pointed out in a letter to the Missoulian, there was no obvious way to vote if you wanted to retain the Board but didn’t support reopening.  Erb is right: there are two separate issues here, and the referendum hopelessly conflated them.