Friday, August 27, 2010

Tourism official to fight firing

Betsy Baumgart, who until Friday served as the state's top tourism official, said she plans to challenge her Aug. 20 firing by newly appointed Montana Department of Commerce Director Dore Schwinden.

Baumgart spoke publicly about her dismissal for the first time Thursday in an interview with the Tribune.

She said she had no indication that she would be fired when she walked into a meeting in Schwinden's office a week ago.

Baumgart, who had been the division administrator for the commerce department's Montana Promotion Division, said her dismissal was "unjustified and unwarranted."

"I worked for three years under (former Commerce Director Mark) Simonich. I worked for five-and-a-half years under (recently retired Director Tony) Preite. During that time, all of my performance evaluations were positive," Baumgart said. "I worked under Director Schwinden for three weeks; and within three weeks he determined that he was going to terminate me."

Baumgart said she arrived for a scheduled meeting in Schwinden's office last Friday to discuss tourism-related issues.

"Very quickly I realized that it had turned into a pretermination meeting," Baumgart said.

She said when she arrived for the meeting, Schwinden offered her a glass of water and then left the room. He returned moments later with the glass of water, but he wasn't alone. He was accompanied by Marty Roos, a human-resources manager for the department.

"They asked me if I wanted to resign," Baumgart said. "I told them I wouldn't resign because I hadn't done anything wrong. I was totally caught off-guard."

Baumgart declined to say what reason Schwinden and Roos gave for the termination because she is considering challenging the decision. She said she has discussed the matter with an attorney.

Schwinden confirmed Monday that Baumgart no longer worked for the department, but declined to give a reason for her departure.

Marissa Kozel, communications director for the Commerce Department, did not return multiple messages left at her office and on her cell phone voicemail.

Baumgart's firing came as a shock to many in the state's tourism community. Those interviewed earlier this week said they admired the job Baumgart did during her tenure as head of the state tourism office, and were saddened to hear of her departure.

"She's been a very competent administrator and she's been a tireless travel advocate for the state," Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.

Baumgart said she has received numerous phone calls of support from former colleagues and other members of the state's tourism industry since the story of her firing broke on Tuesday.

She added that the past week has been a shock.

"Sometimes I don't even believe that it's real," Baumgart said. "It makes me sad, but then I get mad. I loved the job and I felt I had the opportunity to work with the most dedicated people I have ever had the opportunity to work for."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

State tourism director sacked Friday

HELENA — News of the sudden departure of the state's top tourism official sent shockwaves through Montana's tourism industry over the weekend.

Sources from the state's tourism industry and a source close to the Department of Commerce said Betsy Baumgart, the longtime director of the Montana office of tourism, was fired Friday afternoon.

Recently-appointed commerce director Dore Schwinden confirmed that as of Friday, Baumgart no longer works for the Commerce Department. Baumgart was hired to head the state's tourism office in 2002 during the administration of Republican Gov. Judy Martz.

Schwinden declined to comment on the details of Baumgart's departure from the agency.

"She's entitled to confidentiality and the right of privacy in any kind of personnel matter," Schwinden said Monday.

Asked if Baumgart resigned from the position, Schwinden said: "I really can't talk about the details."

Messages left at Baumgart's home Monday were not returned.

Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said he was stunned when he learned of Baumgart's departure.

"I have not heard Betsy talking at all about leaving the job," said Brown, who first heard of Baumgart's departure Friday afternoon. "I would be very surprised if it was her decision."

Baumgart is the third high-level commerce department official to leave the agency in recent months.

Former division administrator Dave Cole's abrupt resignation in March made headlines when Cole told Lee Newspapers that he was forced out of his job by the Schweitzer administration. Cole said he was pushed out after he responded to a request from a GOP lawmaker regarding grants to local communities that Schweitzer had frozen. The governor's office denied playing a role in Cole's ouster.

Schwinden's predecessor, Tony Preite, retired as commerce director on Aug. 1 after heading the department for 5-1/2 years.

Schwinden said Anna Marie Moe, program manager for Visitor and Industry Services, was promoted to interim division administrator of the Montana Promotion Division.
Brown said leaders in the state's tourism and travel industry were happy with the job Baumgart had done over the years as the state's top tourism official.

"She's been a very competent administrator and she's been a tireless travel advocate for the state," Brown said. "Betsy is well-respected in the industry as an expert in the field, as well as being a very ethical person. I think there will be shockwave through the travel industry and a lot of people asking, 'what is going on?'"

Lucy Weeder, chair of the Montana Innkeepers Association, said she was "disappointed and confused" to hear of Baumgart's sudden departure.

"Betsy is widely respected by members of our association and by tourism professionals across the state," Weeder said in a written statement Monday. "She has done an admirable job in leading the efforts of the Montana Office of Tourism and we will miss her enthusiasm, leadership and her dedication."

Weeder said tourism is on the rise in Montana despite an ongoing national recession that has dampened tourism in other parts of region. Weeder said Montana innkeepers are reporting record number of guests and the highest level of occupancy in years.

According to a recent report from the independent research firm Smith Travel Research, Montana's lodging occupancy level for July increased by 7.8 percent compared to July of 2009. The rest of the Rocky Mountain region experienced only a 4.3 percent growth during that same region.

"We attribute these positive numbers to the staff and leadership at the Montana Office of Tourism who have done a first class job in promoting our state and welcoming visitors," Weeder said. "We thank Betsy for her efforts and we offer our continuing support to the mission and the dedicated staff at the Montana Office of Tourism."

Schwinden said the Commerce Department will begin searching for Baumgart's replacement immediately. He said a job announcement will posted soon.

"We've got a legislative session coming up, we're in the middle of the executive planning process, and the promotions division has a very lot of important programmatic things going on," Schwinden said.

Note: I'll update with links later today...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Montana ranks third in per capita stimulus spending

Montana has taken in more federal economic stimulus dollars than all but two other states, according to data compiled by the investigative website Pro Publica.

Montana raked in $1,744 of recovery dollars for every citizen. That's 33 percent higher than the national average of $1,170 per capita.

Only Alaska, at $3,145, and South Dakota, at $1,781, received more dollars per resident from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act than Montana.

According to Pro Publica, Montana received $1,687,028,601 in stimulus funds.

Residents of sparsely populated Carter County, in the southeastern corner of the state, benefitted the most from federal recovery funds. That county, which has a population of about 1,230 and an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent in 2009, received $11,064,503, or $8,966 per capita. The vast majority of those funds, $10.9 million, were allocated to paving State Secondary Highway 323 between Ekalaka and Alzada.

Lewis and Clark County, with a population of approximately 61,000 and an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in 2009, received the most money of any county in the state and the second highest per capital dollar amount, at $7,267. The $442,754,721 that county received accounted for more than a quarter of all stimulus funding received by the state, according to Pro Publica's figures.

The reason so many recovery dollars flowed through Lewis and Clark County is because it is home to the state's capital, where most state agencies are headquartered.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services received $197,518,886 for items such as Medicaid payments, low-income childcare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, weatherization assistance and foster care. The Department of Environmental Quality took in $70,017,920 for things such as energy conservation programs, clean drinking water programs and environmental cleanups. The Department of Labor and Industry took in $55,815,027, mostly for unemployment insurance benefits.

Cascade County was ranked 21st in the state for per capita stimulus spending at $1,203. The federal government pumped $98,660,809 in recovery grants and loans into that county.

The bulk of that money was funded through the Army and Air Force.

The Army contracted San Diego, Calif.-based Sunstar LLC to perform $23,861,200 worth of repairs to foundations on 179 Minuteman Village houses on Malmstrom Air Force Base. Two other contractors received $165,435 for their part in the reconstruction project.

The Air Force spent another $19,047,332 on other repairs and renovations at the base.

Garfield County, in east-central Montana, received the least amount of federal recovery dollars in the state, at $27,132, or $23 per capita. All of that money went to the Jordon School District to improve teaching and learning for students most at risk of failing to meet state academic achievement standards.

A spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said it's no surprise Montana is high on the list of per capita stimulus spending, given the unique geography of the state.

"In rural states like Montana, we have more roads that need repaired, longer distances to deliver drinking water, a vast border to secure and a lot of small communities whose physical infrastructure is falling apart," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said. "Jon supported the Recovery Act because it's creating jobs rebuilding rural America and Montana's economy."

Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican who voted against the act, said the success of the stimulus shouldn't be measured by how fast it spends borrowed money, but by the number of jobs it creates.

"Since the so-called stimulus passed, unemployment has swelled to nearly 10 percent and millions of American jobs have been destroyed. And while the unemployment rate in Montana continues to rise, the only sector that's seen steady job creation is the government," Rehberg wrote in an e-mail. "By any measure, this stimulus has not done what it was meant to do and has put America further in debt."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Protests spew over Montana-Gulf pipeline plan

As I wrote about in USA Today, Environmental groups and landowners, upset by last month's oil spill in Michigan, are urging the Obama administration to deny a proposal for an oil pipeline that would go from the Montana-Canada border to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Alberta-based TransCanada's proposed 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline would link up with its existing 2,151-mile Keystone pipeline, which began operations in June, and go through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The Keystone XL would cross dozens of rivers and streams from Montana to Texas, including the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, and the the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast shallow underground water table that's a major source of water for much of the High Plains region.

Opponents say last month's spill underscored the dangers of the United States' reliance on fossil fuels. A pipeline ruptured on July 25 and spilled nearly a million gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed the Keystone XL project even before the Michigan spill, but the incident has increased scrutiny and elevated concerns.

Last week representatives from some of the nation's leading environmental groups wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urging him refuse to issue a permit to TransCanada:

"Last week’s Enbridge oil pipeline spill of more than 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is the latest of more than 2,500 significant pipeline incidents that have occurred in United States over the last decade, which have resulted in 161 fatalities and 576 injuries. Enbridge’s operations alone were responsible for over 600 spills that released more than 5 million gallons of oil into the environment. This history of pipeline spills taken alongside the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, clearly demonstrate the need for additional government oversight and safety measures when it comes to our oil extraction and transportation."


"Recognizing DOT’s role as a consulting agency on TransCanada’s presidential permit application to the State Department for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project – the next major tar sands oil pipeline under consideration – we urge DOT to recommend that the pipeline not be built."

Groups opposing the expanded pipeline have also popped up on Facebook. Last week, protesters demonstrated outside Chicago's Palmer House Hilton hotel, where President Obama was attending a Democratic fundraiser, and hung a banner over Obama's Lake Shore Drive route that read, "Pres. Obama: Stop the Keystone Pipeline, Stop the Tar Sands."

"This disastrous oil spill in Michigan is yet another wake-up call to the tragic impacts of our oil dependence," says Alex Moore of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “Coming on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, this spill reinforces the need for us to build a clean energy economy, not more pipelines.”

TransCanada's vice president of Keystone Pipelines, Robert Jones, says the company is committed to safety and will use state-of-the-art leak-detection systems with automatic shut-off valves. Emergency response plans, he says, are already in place if a leak were to occur.

"We could react to that leak automatically," Jones says.

Before TransCanada can begin construction, it must get approval from several federal agencies, including the State Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management.

Last month, the State Department added 90 days to the review process.

TransCanada also needs permits from Montana and South Dakota.

Utility officials in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas say their states don't require permits for interstate oil pipelines. The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission approved the project in March. Tom Ring of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says a decision could come this fall.

TransCanada hopes to begin construction early next year and complete the project by early 2013, spokesman Terry Cunha says.

Once completed, the combined Keystone system would have the capacity to deliver 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day to U.S. refineries, including 500,000 barrels from the new portion, which is expected to cost $7 billion, Cunha says.

The proposed pipeline would run through part of Agnes Reeves' ranch in eastern Montana. Her son, Tom Reeves, says the pipeline spill in Michigan has exacerbated his family's concerns.

“The Michigan spill shows that pipeline spills can and do happen,” Reeves said. “That it was a terrible environmental disaster, and I certainly would not want such a disaster to occur in Montana.”

Last week TransCanada withdrew its application for a special permit that would have allowed the company to pump oil through the pipeline at higher-than-normal pressures. Critics had blasted the waiver application as a profit-boosting measure that would have increased the risk of a catastrophic pipeline failure.

TransCanada officials dismissed that accusation, saying the waiver request was based pipeline standards used in Canada.

Jones, said if U.S. demand for Canadian crude oil requires the company to expand its pipeline system in the future, then the company would consider re-applying for a safety waiver in the future.

“I think it would be speculation for us right now to determine when that would happen,” Jones said.