Monday, November 24, 2014

Finally, I've managed to hack into this account to post the following – a political piece I wrote for the Missoula Independent with one of my former professors last summer. 
I'm transitioning to a new site (hence the forgotten password)! So all of my new published work will be posted there, along with my blog, at Thanks for reading!

Looking for light 

What doomed the “Stop Dark Money” ballot initiative?

Politics is a cheap game to play in Montana, thanks largely to “dark money,” a furtive type of campaign funding for which the state has a substantial claim to being the nation’s poster child. Liberal and conservative groups flooded Montana with funds from undisclosed donors in 2012, attracted by a high-stakes U.S. Senate race, relatively cheap TV ads and the low cost of reaching the state’s nearly 680,000 registered voters by mail.
According to ProPublica, almost a quarter of the $51 million or more spent in the 2012 Senate race came from issue-advocacy groups that do not disclose their contributors. The dark money—and the influence it represented—drew protests from Democrats and Republicans alike.
But efforts to shed light on dark money have fallen flat. During the state’s most recent legislative session, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo, collaborated on the proposed Trace Act, which would have closed some disclosure loopholes. It died in committee without fanfare. Peterson and a small band of Republicans then vowed to take the fight directly to voters with Initiative 168, but they abandoned the campaign in June, saying they couldn’t raise enough money to collect signatures statewide.
In a state with such toothless disclosure laws and prevalent, high-profile support for strengthening them, why has every effort to rein in dark money failed?
While Montana’s far right has never supported dark money disclosure, organizers of I-168 were surprised to hear objections from liberal groups that typically support disclosure. Peterson says he reached out directly to potential supporters on the left, but couldn’t get any bites.
“Everybody says, ‘Yeah, I don’t like dark money,’ but when it comes time to raise the money to get the signatures ... people clam up,” he says.
Sandy Welch, a Republican and an organizer for the “Stop Dark Money” initiative, says her group sought support from across the political spectrum, yet managed to raise only about $20,000—a fraction of what it takes to bring an initiative to the ballot in such a large state.
“There are a lot of people who fund political activities who like dark money,” Welch says. “They don’t want it to go away.”
The organizers weren’t the only ones surprised at the initiative’s failure.
“Where were the organizations?” asks Anthony Johnstone, a professor of constitutional and election law at the University of Montana. “Where were the unions? Where was Common Cause? Where were the parties? Without that kind of support, you’re going to have a hard time qualifying an initiative, even on something so recently salient in Montana.”
Jonathan Motl, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, says he was disappointed but not surprised by I-168’s failure. He says Peterson’s decision to require disclosure for money spent on voter mobilization by nonpartisan nonprofits probably doomed the initiative before it got off the ground.
“In my opinion, that was added by Peterson in an effort to bring in some support for it from (conservative) groups, which weren’t going to support it anyway,” Motl says.
One of the people Peterson looked to for support was C.B. Pearson, a veteran organizer of ballot initiative campaigns. Pearson spearheaded the 2012 “corporate personhood” ballot measure, which passed with 75 percent approval in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. But Pearson says he couldn’t support the Stop Dark Money initiative and agreed with Motl, saying the inclusion of all nonprofits would have forced disclosure on the League of Women Voters and other groups that encourage voting, but refrain from endorsing candidates or ballot issues.
“I just don’t think you can regulate that,” Pearson says. “There’s a right to participate.”
The Missoula-based Forward Montana would have been in the same boat. But under Montana law, nonprofits that do endorse specific candidates, including unions and groups such as Montana Conservation Voters, are already required to disclose their contributors.
Had the measure focused solely on disclosure for the issue-advocacy groups, it might have had a chance, Pearson says. He adds that when people lament the effects of dark money, they’re usually thinking about the nasty, anonymous, third-party attack ads.
“I don’t think anybody likes the third-party stuff at all,” he says.
As Montana’s chief elections watchdog, Motl says dark money still needs to be exposed because it undermines the public’s trust in the political process, which in turn erodes faith in government. He adds that his office is working on legislation that would require disclosure by issue-advocacy groups, which are often the perpetrators of anonymous attack ads.
Campaign finance reform remains a hot issue at the federal level. Newly nominated Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis has said campaign finance reform will be her top priority if she’s elected. And the Federal Communications Commission recently began requiring all TV stations to post their political ad sales data online.
Progress hasn’t been so forthcoming locally, but I-168’s organizers say they hope the short-lived campaign at least helped educate voters about dark money. Welch expects the issue to resurface in the Montana Legislature next year. Peterson, who is limited by law from seeking a fourth consecutive term in the Senate, says he isn’t sure the idea will receive better treatment in future sessions.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I hope so, but I think they’re going to run into the same problem I did.”
Even so, he adds, it’s a fight worth taking on because dark money plays an outsized role in Montana, especially in down-ballot races, such as legislative contests.
“Montana’s a cheap place to play,” Peterson says, adding that $20,000 can have significant influence in a state Senate race, as $10,000 can in a state House contest.
“If you’re going to bring integrity back into the political process,” he says, “you’re going to have to do something about dark money.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Finally seeing my own byline again.

For nearly four years, Missoula's most prominent downtown retail space has remained vacant. While the Missoula Mercantile building has turned into little more than a billboard for art shows, what with its windows filled with posters and displays, officials say it's an exception to an otherwise healthy downtown.
The Merc, which has been empty since Macy's closed in 2010, has proven more difficult to fill than its Virginia-based owner expected. Octagon Partners bought the 80,000-square-foot building for $2.3 million in 2011 and put nearly another million into deconstructing it to its historically accurate bones—minus the lead and asbestos that contractors removed. But the owner is still looking for tenants willing to move in or someone to buy the site outright.
Several bars and restaurants wanted to move in, says Jed Dennison of Zillastate Realty, the local firm handling the property. But it's been a hard sell because the construction timeline requires signing a lease at least 15 months before a shopkeeper could even start painting the walls, let alone open for business.
"It doesn't make sense to pull the trigger on a $12 million renovation for a 2,000-square-foot tenant," says JP Williamson, of Octagon.
Plus, Dennison says the bank won't fork over the renovation loan without safe, reliable office tenants signed up on the second floor and several retailers on the ground floor.
While the rental situation is caught in a catch-22, Dennison says three local buyers have expressed interest in the building, including the Missoula Public Library. The 40-year-old library has outlived its original lifespan by a decade and outgrown its capacity. With more than 1,700 visitors a day, Executive Director Honore Bray says the library turns down 50 to 100 requests for meeting spaces weekly.
"We'd love [to move into the Merc], but we can't say yes or no yet," Bray says, noting the library is waiting for architects to assess whether the historic building, built in 1887, would be able to support the weight of the bookshelves.
If the library purchases the building, it comes with good and bad news. Bad: The city would lose roughly $1 million a year in taxes, says Missoula Downtown Association Executive Director Linda McCarthy. Good: A single owner-occupier would simplify securing funds for construction, and could finally fill the biggest hole in downtown.
"In a big-picture sense," McCarthy says, "it would be great if it was an active (retail) space and remains on the tax rolls. But having a library in that building is better than a vacant building."
McCarthy adds that while the Merc remains the elephant on the corner of Higgins and Front, downtown is largely healthy. Its 12.8-percent vacancy rate is less than half the national average and shows the area continues to attract new businesses. "But I wouldn't say it's thriving yet," McCarthy says.

National finalists!

Brett Berntsen's Montana Journalism Review cover story "No Place to Hide," edited by yours truly, ended up as a national finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists' Mark of Excellence Awards!

Plus, at the regional level, our site won Best Affiliated Website and the print magazine was a finalist for Best Student Magazine, as I've mentioned before. Not too shabby, MJR.

And Native News 2013 won Best Independent Online Student News Publication in Region 10. Here's my contribution to the publication, and here's the list of Region 10 winners in all categories.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

MJR is winning awards!

Here's some exciting news: Montana Journalism Review, the magazine I edited last fall, won regional Mark of Excellence awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for Best Student Magazine, Best Affiliated Website, and Best Non-fiction Article (for the cover story I edited)! We'll find out in May if we advance to the national competition in any of the categories.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My op-ed that the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune ran on Feb. 27, 2014.

Montana Soap Box: Unpaid internships very often unfair

With the job market still tight, unpaid internships are as close as many aspiring professionals can get to a job in their field. These internships are supposed to be about businesses investing in their future workforces and interns gaining experience and training valuable enough to offset their unpaid hours. So, what’s wrong with having the option to get ahead in competitive industries?
The problem arises when the system closes out people who cannot afford to work for free. This is especially egregious because internships are not just extra flair on a resume anymore. Internships are required to get even an entry-level job in many fields, and to graduate from some university programs. My bachelor’s degree in journalism required a one-credit internship, and I paid my university several hundred dollars to earn the credit for my free labor.
The average U.S. student has $29,000 in student-loan debt at the end of a bachelor’s degree. Students pay extravagantly for their education — much more so now than in decades past, even accounting for inflation — then are obliged to do unpaid work before being rewarded with a degree or job.
Students can’t afford to work for free any more than anyone else can, especially if they’re not getting some sort of educational or experiential benefit out of the process. (Bear in mind many undergraduates, people switching careers, and other interns have families to support or other responsibilities and debts.)
Federal law is clear on when it’s OK not to pay interns or trainees. The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes six criteria companies must meet to justify not paying interns. The key elements are the internship must provide the equivalent of vocational training, and the company cannot directly benefit from unpaid interns or use their efforts to replace paid employees.
In 2013, several groups of unpaid interns sued the corporations they worked for, including Condé Nast, Hearst, PBS, Atlantic Records, and Elite Model Management. The plaintiffs allege their internships didn’t have enough, or any, educational value to justify not getting paid for their work. More suits are in progress in the sports, fashion, media, and healthcare industries.
The decision that led to the deluge of lawsuits came last June, when two former Fox Searchlight interns won their lawsuit over unpaid internships in which they were assigned menial tasks, such as fetching coffee, on the set of the 2010 film “Black Swan.” They may have been getting their feet in the door at Fox, but they weren’t getting an education; they were simply doing work that needed to be done.
The message from the federal court was clear: Programs that don’t teach must pay. As a reporting intern at a midsize, daily newspaper in California last year, I didn’t get paid but I did get a lot of experience and a better idea of what kind of career I want. I could afford to be philosophical about the process because I was lucky enough to have a full-ride college scholarship, which helped me absorb the cost of moving from my native Montana to California for a summer of what was essentially volunteer work.
Too many students don’t have that option, which means only the relatively wealthy can afford the experiences needed to land decent jobs. This system entrenches economic inequality, making the dream of bettering one’s station in life increasingly limited to those who don’t start out poor.
It also means companies that don’t pay interns don’t necessarily get the best applicants — merely the best middle-class-and-above applicants — and they expose themselves to costly litigation.
While it’s true that fewer internships may be offered if all companies have to comply with the law and pay their interns, at least then the opportunities would go to the most qualified students who are ready to contribute to a professional workplace. This would also relieve employers of the frustration of dealing with students who are not prepared for professional work, but are forced into internships as a graduation requirement. (Former bosses as well as former professors have told me this is not an uncommon problem.)
The cost of higher education in the U.S. borders on injustice. Colleges and universities make matters worse by offering their students as free labor, driving many students deeper into debt, by requiring internships and making students pay for the credits they earn working these unpaid gigs.
Popular culture tells us not getting paid for labor is an inevitable part of young professional life, and people should just tough it out. But no one benefits when career advancement is limited to wealthier applicants, least of all companies that potentially miss out on discovering some of the greatest talents simply because those people might not be able to afford living and being interns at the same time.
Interns and employers alike deserve a fairer system that promotes learning and rewards merit, not economic class.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

One more front page centerpiece, and another story that reminded me community news can be a lot of fun to report.

Monterey Bay Aquarium camp teaches girls about marine science

Click photo to enlarge
A flock of Elegant Terns greets kayakers from Young Women in Science they... ( Shmuel Thaler )
MOSS LANDING -- A group of middle school girls from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties spent the week learning about ocean conservation in Monterey Bay Aquarium's bilingual Young Women in Science camp.

The camp packs a lot into a week, from surfing and boogie boarding, to meeting with local research groups and female scientists who serve as teachers and role models. One morning's activity was kayaking at Elkhorn Slough, a hot spot of biological diversity with its unusually high number of endemic species of birds, fish, mammals and plants.

As the girls got ready to paddle, their rows of boats sat, looking like bright yellow, beached whales, a few feet from the water while the guide from Monterey Bay Kayaks gave a rundown on slough safety that ended with a call for questions.

Only one hand shot into the air.

"Is this for emergencies?" asked Jennifer Lopez, a petite, outgoing 12-year-old from Salinas with glittery pink glasses, holding up the orange plastic whistle tethered to her life vest.

Luckily, the whistles stayed quiet throughout the morning. The girls toured the tranquil slough, with curious sea otters, which they had spent the previous day studying, swimming along side them and flocks of elegant terns flying overhead.

The Young Women in Science program was established in 1999 in response to what Claudia Pineda Tibbs, the Aquarium's Hispanic marketing and public relations coordinator, called an alarming lack of women and minorities studying and pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called STEM.

"STEM careers were really targeted toward men and toward people who were not of color," Pineda Tibbs said.

"It's really to have the girls see that there are women in science, and break that perception of what a scientist looks like," she added. "Scientists can be women, mothers, people of color."

Pineda Tibbs said the biggest challenge, in the beginning, was getting parents to agree to let their kids to participate in the program, especially in the Latino community, where she said some families are not used to girls spending all day out of the house with a program that's not directly related to school. One of the benefits of the program being bilingual is it allows the girls to share what they learn about conservation with their families and friends, no matter what language they speak.

Now, the program fills quickly. Each year, two first-year Otter Camps accommodate 72 girls and one Ocean Guardians Camp for returning students takes another 45. The final camp of the year will be next week and is fully booked.

The girls join the camp with an array of backgrounds and interests. While the program is bilingual and most campers receive scholarships to cover at least part of the $200 cost, there are no requirements for family income, language or even interest in a career in science.

"Some of them say, 'I want to be a police officer,' some say they want to be marine biologists or they want to work in fashion," Pineda Tibbs said of the participants. "And that's OK because, ultimately, it's inspiring conservation of the ocean. And everyone can do that."

The program incorporates other aspects of conservation, as well, including recycling and composting lessons. The coordinators try to make sure the lunches provided are as close as possible to zero waste.

While the girls' families are only asked to pay a maximum of $200 for the program, the aquarium's cost per participant is about $1,000, including busing the girls around Monterey Bay, activities and lunches. Most of that money comes from grants, membership revenue and donations to the Aquarium's Children's Education Fund.

Campers who are interested in science careers have options to continue with related programs in high school and college.

Rita Medina, 19, of Watsonville, is working her first job this summer as a program assistant for Young Women in Science. She has been involved ever since her years as a camper, and was a volunteer for the Teen Conservation Leaders program in high school. She said the program has helped her decide to study marine biology when she starts at Cabrillo College in the fall.

"I'm getting paid and it's my first job," Medina said. "I really love it."

Follow Sentinel reporter Ketti Wilhelm on Twitter at

  • To donate to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Children's Education Fund, go to:
  • For information about Young Women in Science, or to register for that or other Monterey Bay Aquarium programs, go to:
  • Bull riding event kicks off Big Week in Salinas

    Click photo to enlarge
    Robin and Phil Adkins of Corralitos share a blanket Wednesday night at the Professional... ( SCS )
    SALINAS -- The Professional Bull Riding Pro Touring Event held its own Wednesday night at the Salinas Sports Complex as the unofficial kickoff event of the California Rodeo Salinas.

    The event filled the stadium as the crowd cheered and country music blared, ushering in the 13th annual PBR event in Salinas.

    Mandy Linquist, marketing manager of the California Rodeo Salinas, said the PBR event has always taken place on the Wednesday of Big Week, as rodeo week is known.

    "People are already in the Western lifestyle mindset," Linquist said.

    "They're busting out their jeans and their cowboys boots and they want to go to as many events as possible this week."

    Linquist said about 8,000 people attended last year's PBR event and that ticket sales are slightly up this year.

    The event draws cowboys from across the country, as well as some international contestants.

    The mood behind the chutes was mixed.

    Ryan McConnel, 26, originally from Bloomfield, N.M., was first in line and nervously waited for his chance on Shameless. McConnel was quickly bucked off as his fiancee, Rebekah Zacarias, of Clovis watched from across the arena.

    At 26, McConnel said the sport doesn't get any easier with age.

    "It gets tough and you don't want to get a lot worse off than you already are," McConnel said.

    Sean Willingham, a 32-year-old veteran bull rider from Summerville, Ga., has been a professional in the sport since before the PBR stopped in Salinas and has been riding more than half his life.

    "It's a young man's sport, for sure," Willingham said.

    Willingham was scheduled to ride a bull named Oops on Wednesday. He waited for his turn at press time for this story.

    Early in the program, defending California Rodeo Salinas champion Shane Proctor, 28, of Moorsville, N.C., was in the lead with a score of 86.

    Follow Sentinel reporter Ketti Wilhelm on Twitter at

    California Rodeo Salinas
    WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
    WHERE: Salinas Sports Complex, 1034 N. Main St., Salinas
    COST: $7 to $20