1. An unexpected shake-up at Northern
Montana State University-Northern made a lot of big announcements in the first half of this year, first from then-Chancellor Frank Trocki and then about him.
In the first few months of 2011, Trocki was at the center of a number of announced initiatives that sounded like substantial boons for Northern and Havre, including a U. S. military drone testing program, the construction of a bio-diesel plant in the pending industrial park southwest of Havre, a $7.9 million renovation to the school’s automotive technology building and bringing billionaire Ted Turner to speak at graduation.
Unlike Ted Turner, the other initiatives have not yet appeared.
The auto-tech renovation was voted down with other construction plans in the Legislature’s bonding bill.
The details of the drone program shifted more toward Northern’s involvement as a partner, contributing fuel research while other school’s handled the heavy-lifting.
Despite an early excited document, what appeared to be a draft of a press release, no real news has come out about the bio-diesel production plant since Trocki left Havre this summer.
In the first week of April the Havre Daily News reported that MSU President Waded Cruzado had halted a search for a new Northern dean over a procedural investigation. Trocki complained that the paper was blowing the situation out of proportion. Later that day, MSU announced that Trocki would be leaving in June.
His replacement, Jim Limbaugh, was appointed in November, providing Northern with a fresh start to a new year on Jan. 1.
2. City Hall actions and inactions stir controversy
Over in Havre’s City Hall, both action and inaction have seen some strong reactions.
Early in 2011, the ordinance committee was very active, taking up talks of animal ordinances, cellphone policies and downtown parking.
The animal ordinance had started in early 2010, but was resolved, while skirting the phantom chicken issue, in 2011.
The ban on using cellphones while driving has been one of the most contentious issues the city has faced recently. With strong feelings on both sides, factions duked it out through the early hearings and repeal talks that started only days after it actually passed.
While it is law, and signs have been posted announcing it, the ban will still not truly take effect until the no-longer- indefinite grace period ends on Mar. 1.
That could give councilman-elect Rick Dow almost two months to fight the ban, one of the reasons he said prompted him to run, along with the imposition on people’s rights that he feels it represents.
The enforcement side had its share as well.
Chief of Police Jerry Nystrom announced his resignation unexpectedly in May, to move to Oklahoma.
A few weeks later his wife, Ashlie Nystrom, was involved in a reported scuffle at PJ’s Restaurant and Casino.
Shortly after the Nystrom’s moved out of town, the investigation of the PJ’s event moved from the Havre Police Department to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office then to the Havre City Prosecutor’s office and then to the Blaine County Attorney’s office, where it has remained — held up by Attorney Don Ranstrom’s busy schedule — for months.
Nystrom’s replacement, Kirk Fitch, will be sworn in at the next Havre City Council meeting Jan. 3.
3. Bad roofs, close levies, and big kindergarten classes
The Havre Public School districts got off to a rocky start this year, with the first school day of 2011 at Havre High School being cancelled after the roof over the library collapsed on Dec. 30, 2010.
The quick recovery — students only missed one day — led to the realization that the roof had been designed inadequately and then constructed even more poorly in 1997.
This revelation, in combination with Montana’s 10-year statute of limitations on actions in such cases, led to some frustration, to say the least, among the administration, the Board of Trustees and the community.
Frustration flared again when it was discovered in September that the fact the roof over the gymnasium had also been built poorly had not been recognized in the initial evaluation.
Trustee Curtis Smeby summed up many people’s feelings on hearing that news when he said, “We’re left holding the bag all the time. I feel like we’re a bunch of chumps. ”
The community appeared frustrated as well. When voting on mill levies for the schools, all three passed, but the widest margin of victory was 53 percent to 47 percent and the narrowest victory was by only eight votes.
The schools lost a lot of district veterans in the spring to resignations and retirement, some of which were unplanned but were done to mitigate budget shortfalls after the roof collapse and legislative session.
The spring school retirements included two Havre principals. Jerry Vandersloot left Havre High School for a job at a school in Wyoming. Brian Barrows retired from Sunnyside Intermediate School then jumped into politics and will serve on the Havre City Council starting next month. Finances should be a bit less stressful for the district next year, with this autumn’s unexpected surge in kindergartners and the possibility of more down the line.
4. Blaine County undersheriff killed in the line of duty
In a harsh holiday blow to the Hi-Line, Blaine County Undersheriff Pat Pyette was struck by a driver on U. S. Highway 2 and died on Dec. 14.
Initial reports of Pyette’s death drew condolences and remembrances from all over the country from people who knew Pyette and knew of his virtues.
The commemoration of the highly respected officer was demonstrated powerfully at his memorial service on Dec. 19, as hundreds of mourners and colleagues from the U. S. and Canada filled the Chinook High School gymnasium for a memorial service and Chinook’s Kuper Memorial Cemetery for his burial.
According to the program from that service, Pyette was born in Havre Sept. 27, 1957, to Jerome and Bernice Pyette. He attended school at Meadowlark in Chinook, and then the family moved to Hysham, where he continued his education.
When Pat Pyette was a sophomore, his family moved to Billings, where he graduated from Billings West High School.
He enlisted in the U. S. Air Force July 1976 as an avionics technician on the F-15. During his enlistment he served in Germany, the Middle East and the United States. When he retired, he was recognized as the second-most qualified F-15 technician in the United States Air Force.
On May 29, 1979, he married Terri Bryant in Britburg, Germany. With Bryant he had one son, Kristopher, on Dec. 26, 1979.
Pyette joined the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 2001. He was appointed undersheriff in 2006.
Pyette was an avid hunter and enjoyed fishing, but his favorite moments in life were spending time with his grandchildren, who adored and admired their “Papa.”
5. Court: Tribal chair pleads, med pot caregivers in the news
Some high-profile court stories passed through the Havre area in 2011.
After several months of rumors at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, Raymond “Jake” Parker Jr., chair of the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s Business Committee, resigned May 23, then pleaded guilty in federal court the next day to embezzling nearly $60,000 of tribal money by using a tribal credit card.
In September, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon sentenced Parker to 16 months in prison followed by three years supervised release, and ordered him to pay restitution.
In a case that started in 2010, two Havre government employees saw the drug charges against them thrown out.
Delaine and Malisa Fitzpatrick were charged in 2010 with illegally selling marijuana to an undercover agent. The Fitzpatricks were registered as medical marijuana caregivers.
In August, state District Judge Julie Macek dismissed all charges. The agent obtained a false driver’s license and false medical marijuana patient card. That, the judge said, was governmental misconduct.
The Montana Supreme Court is waiting to hear an appeal.
In a seperate case, Delaine Fitzpatrick and Garrett J. Briere of Havre were arrested on U. S. Interstate 5 near Roseburg, Ore., Nov. 9. The officers arresting the two said that during a stop for a minor traffic violation the officers found more than 12 pounds of marijuana in trunk of their car.
6. Highway work progresses, Northern building doesn’t
Work nearly was completed on a U. S. Highway 2 project east of Havre, but not nearly as much as advocates of the thoroughfare wanted.
The first section of work between Havre and Fort Belknap is close to completion, with wider lanes and shoulders and some passing and turning lanes included. The advocates of widening Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana had once again lobbied to have the project upgraded to that, but local government officials disagreed due to the potential for delays and the loss of funding.
But another project in the area still is on hiatus following a controversial legislative session.
Montana State University-Northern has been pushing to fund an approved project to build a new automotive-diesel technology building. After scrambling and intense work by local lawmakers — including the three Republicans and two Democrats from Hill and Blaine counties — in Helena it looked like the building’s funding would be included in the state construction bonding bill.
After the Northern bill was included, the Republican-led Legislature ended up killing the bill in its entirety in a confusing, fast-paced, back-and-forth process at the session’s end.
7. Business: Possible post office closings ruffle feathers
The U. S. Postal Service has been busy this year with a few plans to recover from recent substantial losses.
In April the USPS announced it was looking into consolidating mail processing for Havre, Helena and Butte in Great Falls. After a short study period, they announced the move was going to happen by the end of the year.
Around the same time they closed the Big Sky district and consolidated it with the Dakotas district in Sioux Falls, S.D.
People all over the country got worried when the postal service announced they were looking at closing more than 3,600 post offices across the country, including more than 80 in Montana.
Through three months of public meetings across the country and state, including on the Hi-Line in Joplin, Inverness, Kremlin, Hingham, Zurich and Hogeland, the public expressed their displeasure with the idea.
With floods of letters and pushes from legislators, the postal service announced this decision would not be as hasty, postponing the discussion until next May.
8. A second year of bad spring flooding
While it was not as bad as originally feared, north-central Montana was included in another presidential disaster declaration due to flooding.
Following a disaster declaration in 2010 for flooding in Hill County and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, President Barack Obama declared most of the state a disaster, including a provision not included in 2010 allowing aid to private property owners.
The Havre area was under widespread alert starting in March, with high snowpack, particularly in the Bear’s Paw Mountains and the northern parts of Hill and Blaine counties, raising concern that a quick thaw could lead to severe flooding.
While the thaw was slower than feared, reducing the amount of flooding, damage did occur in Rocky Boy and along Beaver Creek in Hill County and the Milk River in Blaine County, along with flooding in the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation at Hays and Lodge Pole as well as along the Milk.
Work quickly ensued, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency overseeing activities.
9. Bitter Little Shell dispute finally settled
A crowd gathered to watch the hearing before a three-judge panel in Great Falls that listened to testimony from both sides in the controversy that has split apart two factions of the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians.
"How are you doing," one woman asked a friend she had not seen in some time.
"I'll be better when all of this is over," she responded.
Similar conversations took place throughout the daylong hearing.
The Little Shell have had few friends over the years. They have been unable to secure federal recognition, and state and federal funding has been scarce.
But the bitterest feud was within the tribe. Two sides — one headed by John Gilbert of Greats Falls and another headed by John Sinclair of Havre — had been at each other's throats for nearly three years.
The judges ruled that Gilbert was the legitimate leader of the tribe, and proposed that a tribal judiciary system be set up to avoid future public spats.
Gilbert said the tribe was now ready to move forward and meet the many challenges it faces.
10. New public faces on the Hi-Line
A tumultuous year in politics led to some new faces in prominent positions at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. After tribal council Chair Raymond “Jake” Parker Jr. resigned in May one day before pleading guilty to charges that he embezzled tribal funds, Vice Chair Bruce Sunchild Sr. took the position on an interim basis.
Sunchild won the special election for the seat July 5, taking 45 percent of the votes with a total of 771.
Another candidate finally won a seat in the election to fill the council spot vacated by Sunchild to take the chair position. Stacey Small, who lost a lengthy legal battle contesting the primary election in 2010, won two special elections to take a seat on the council.
Small won a special election to fill Sunchild’s seat on Aug. 18 with 157 votes. That election was protested by Donovan Stump, who received 144 votes. The Rocky Boy election board ruled in favor of the protest, and in the Sept. 27 re-vote, Small won with 352 votes.
Some other familiar faces rose to prominence in new positions in the area as well.
Local attorney Dan Boucher took over as the state district judge in the area, appointed in November 2010 to take the place of Judge David Rice, who had retired.
Havre native Tony Preite also was prominent in his position for Montana State University-Northern, lobbying for the university during the legislative session. Preite took a special position at Northern after retiring Aug. 1 as Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s director of the Department of Commerce.
Tim Leeds, John Kelleher and Zach White contributed to these stories. Photos by Nikki Carlson and Zach White.