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Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, speaks during the introduction of Senate Bill 162 to exempt churches from reporting political advocacy or support (Montana Public Access Network).
Montana state Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, is termed out from running again, but that isn’t stopping him from one last campaign this year.
At taxpayer expense.
Just a day after the Park City School District pushed out information about a school levy campaign, Howard sent a letter on Montana Senate letterhead to constituents, using his privilege as a senator, and urging residents to vote against the school funding request, which appears on the ballot this year.
Howard did not respond to repeated requests by the Daily Montanan to answer questions about the letter.
The letter, sent on Montana Senate letterhead and ostensibly sent at state expense, addresses “every property owner in or around Park City, Montana,” and urges them in bold letters: “Please VOTE NO on two separate ballots for the Park City School building projects.”
Though the letter is atypical, the state’s top political practices official said the practice, according to state law, is legal.
Park City running out of room
Park City has made several recent attempts to pass building levy projects to keep up with growth and aging facilities.
Park City Schools purchased 20 acres nine years ago for future expansion that school officials had rightly seen coming as Montana, and areas around Yellowstone County have experienced substantial growth. Park City, which sits in Stillwater County, nearby the border and not far from Laurel in Yellowstone County, continues to grow.
Recent levy elections have come close to support, so Park City Public Schools Superintendent Dan Grabowska explained the school leaders listened to voters and pared down the proposal, hoping this fall to overcome just a little more than 100 votes — the margin of failure of the last, larger ask to the voters.
“We cut 20 percent of the project,” Grabowska said. “We took it to the bone.”
Grabowska explained that the levy is part of a project that will help streamline facilities. Right now, teachers in middle school and high school have to travel back and forth between buildings three blocks apart. The class space for the agriculture program is one block away. And the elementary school is utilizing three double-wide modular classrooms, which increases costs and decreases safety, Grabowska said.
“There’s only so much we can do to keep the buildings up to date and follow requirements,” Grabowska said.
Right now, there’s not enough parking for sports or other activities and the gymnasium can’t hold a very large crowd, he said, something that is going to become even more important next school year when Park City moves from Class C to Class B, a larger size that includes nearby rivals such as Columbus, Huntley, Big Timber, Red Lodge and Roundup.
Leaders were equally surprised to see Howard’s letter, which openly campaigns against the issue, with official state letterhead.
“My job as your Senator is to look after your best interest, and in my opinion, these two bonds are not in your best interest,” Howard said.
The majority of the letter focuses on the rising cost of property taxes and inflation, saying that they “may force those on a fixed income out of their homes.”
Grabowska said he was disappointed by the letter.
“Obviously, it’s a concern not just as a local constituent, but when it comes from the Montana Senate with letterhead, that’s pretty authoritative,” he said.
It’s not the first time this year or election cycle where the use of state letterhead has become a public issue.
Earlier this year, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, sent a letter to some residents endorsing a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, using Montana Senate letterhead.
That sparked accusations and a series of letters-to-the-editor in newspapers between Manzella and former Rep. Ed Greef, who accused her of breaking ethics rules as well as being indecent.
Greef accused Manzella of using the campaign donor lists of candidate Wayne Rusk, who is also a Republican, and then sending those Rusk supporters a letter that encouraged them to vote for Alan Lackey.
Manzella didn’t deny the accusations, rather defended her actions saying Greef did not know to whom she sent the letters, and that campaign donations are public records that she had a right to use.
“If I want to use my stationery and postage to write a personal letter expressing my support, that too, is my choice. This is America and my First Amendment right is fully intact. Political endorsements happen every day. I happen to take mine seriously,” Manzella said. “Please allow me to make this perfectly clear — I’m in the ‘official’ business of protecting the U.S. and Montana constitutions, which includes the First Amendment, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, with fidelity. A large part of that is supporting candidates who are properly constitutionally aligned and have the backbone to give it effect.
“I make no apologies for my letter.”
As a postscript, Rusk handily beat Lackey, by a 59-to-40 percent margin.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan confirmed that his office has received multiple complaints about the letters from Manzella and Howard, but he’s said the same thing – Montana law allows this activity and lawmakers are held to a different set of rules than other elected officials.
For example, if Howard or Manzella would have enlisted Senate staff members to help write or send the letter, it would be a violation because state employees are barred from using state resources to campaign. If, for example, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte or Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen wrote the same letters and sent them to the same people, that would trigger the state’s campaign and Code of Ethics laws.
However, the Legislature is bound by a separate set of ethics, which don’t prohibit them using official state letterhead or other resources in a political campaign.
Montana state Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, confirmed that if he’s re-elected this year, reforming Code of Ethics laws to include legislators will be among his top priorities. He said it’s essential citizens have confidence and trust in government, and furthermore, lawmakers should be held “at least” to the same standards as staff and other public officers.
“If it applies to local elected officials, it should apply to legislators as well,” Bedey said. “I do not believe it will be a hard sell. I think most understand it. But, if there’s one thing I learned in my brief time in the Legislature, nothing is ever easy.”
In Montana, judges and judicial officials are government by a separate Judicial Standards Commission, which has also been challenged recently by Montana attorney and former lawmaker Matthew Monforton in a case where a Lewis and Clark County district judge used a courtroom to announce a run for the state Supreme Court.