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Liberty County agent reprimanded over newspaper column

HELENA (AP) - A county Extension agent reprimanded for expressing personal political views in a weekly farm-and-garden column says he won't apologize for his statements, but has agreed to recast his writing as a personal column.

John Maatta, the Montana State University extension agent for Liberty County, was repeatedly reprimanded by superiors at MSU for what they said were inappropriate political remarks he made in a regular column in the Liberty County Times weekly newspaper.

Extension agents in Montana often write columns for local newspapers, usually on subjects ranging from farm or garden tips to canning.

MSU officials said Maatta's column often went beyond that, and one he wrote in September regarding his views on gay marriages was the last straw. They asked him to apologize, characterizing his writings as an inappropriate use of his public office, said Cathy Conover, a university spokeswoman.

Maatta, however, said his employer's institutional tolerance of gays gives him reason to publicly comment on the issue. He said a video that MSU recently sent to county agents urging ''tolerance'' promoted the ''homosexual lifestyle'' and prompted his September column.

''That fired me up,'' Maatta told Lee Newspapers Monday. Maatta's office was closed Tuesday, Veterans Day, and he did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

While he refused to apologize, Maatta told Lee Newspapers he has recast his column, no longer identifying himself as the county extension agent.

''I don't have anything to apologize for,'' Maatta said. ''I am no longer having an Extension column in the county because of this. No longer is Extension being referred to in my columns.''

He continues to work as Liberty County's Extension agent, drawing an annual salary of about $47,900. His position is funded jointly by MSU and the county.

Maatta's September column began with his musings on the U.S. Patriot Act and the ''successful run the homosexual agenda'' had this past summer.

''From the U.S. Supreme Court throwing out sodomy laws, to Ontario, Canada recognizing gay marriage - decisions have been going the gay way,'' he wrote.

Maatta also commented on President Bush's presumed support for a constitutional amendment legally defining marriage and on education, before ending the column with advice for readers on ripening gardens.

Conover said the university intends to monitor Maatta's writings to make sure he is not using his personal column to disseminate information from his extension service duties.

''You can call it what you will,'' Conover said. ''But if you write a personal column, it has to be strictly personal.''


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