2016 Year in Review
Like any other year, 2016 brought Stillwater County highs and lows. The following is a non-inclusive list of some of the biggest and most read stories from this past year, in no particular order.
STILLWATER MINING COMPANY
Considering SMC is the largest employer in the county (and one of the largest in the state) and brings substantial tax revenue to the area, just about anything it does is important to the county. 2016 brought resolution, profit and change to the Stillwater Mining Company. In February, nearly one year after labor contract negotiations between the United Steelworkers Workers International Union Labor 11-0001 and the company began, a contract was signed. While the first quarter saw a $9.9 million profit loss, the second quarter brought an $800,000 profit. It was just the second time in five quarters that the company experienced a profit. The positive momentum continued with the third quarter producing a $12.6 million profit.
And earlier this month it was announced the South African company Sibanye Gold Limited purchased SMC for $2.2 billion, pending the approval of a majority of shareholders of both companies. Company officials said they do not expect much to change in operations.
SUPER BOWL BOUND
Super Bowl 50 was enormous for Stillwater County and Columbus in particular with former Columbus High School Cougar Dwan Edwards playing. The defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers was a member of the remarkable 15-1 team that won the NFC Championship and battled gridiron legend Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for the title of Super Bowl champs. With Edwards at the game was his high school sweetheart and now wife, Kelsey, their five children, his mom Cass Hense-Hegg and stepfather Dennis Hegg of Columbus and sister Chelsea Wilks.
And in classic Edwards style, he also arranged for his CHS football coach John Smith to attend and share the experience with him. When Edwards stepped foot on the field that Sunday, he took with him the dreams of countless small-town athletes that have ever dared to dream big.
DISPATCH DELAY, A LIFE LOST
In the early morning hours of a March day, an 87-year-old Columbus woman was struck and killed by a car on Highway 10. An internal investigation was launched when it was discovered that dispatch had received at least two citizen requests to check on the woman prior to her being hit, but no one had been sent. Approximately one hour passed between the first request to check on her and the time she was struck.
The investigation, conducted by a 5-person committee, determined the dispatcher failed to follow policy but she was not terminated because she was still in training. Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger filed a formal complaint letter with Stillwater County Sheriff Cliff Brophy that stated the incident highlighted ongoing problems with dispatch that had been addressed by Columbus police, fire and EMS staff and even deputies during the previous few years.
In October, eight months after Brophy received Cowger’s letter, the sheriff finally wrote a reply and categorically denied any wrongdoing. Brophy also wrote that because Cowger’s letter dealt with “confidential personnel issues and potential litigation issues, I will not answer your letter in detail.”
Cowger is still waiting for answers.
OLD HOSPITAL FLIP FLOP
The Stillwater County Commissioners announced Nov. 1 they had decided to remodel the old hospital with $3.4 million they had saved up and move all county offices there, with the exception of the courts and law enforcement — despite receiving no public support for that option when discussed at public meetings regarding possible plans to alleviate county office space issues during the previous several months.
Commissioner-elect Mark Crago and two citizens blasted that decision at a subsequent meeting, faulting the commissioners for failing to listen to what the public had requested and questioning the fact that the resolution regarding the decision was the only document not included in the agenda package prior to the meeting.
Crago went as far as to ask the commission to rescind its resolution — a request that did not receive a motion and therefore ended.
However, the following week, the commissioners did exactly what Crago had requested, citing “concerns regarding the open meeting laws” as the reason.
MONTANA OUTLAW BBQ CHAMPIONS
Stillwater County’s own Montana Outlaw BBQ last summer won the grand championship of the Montana BBQ Cook-Off in Absarokee. That win qualified Rick Hamilton and his sons, Tyrel and Justin, to compete in two of the biggest BBQ competitions there are in the county – the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational in Lynchburg, Tenn.
At Kansas, against 557 other teams from around the world, Montana Outlaw BBQ took second place – reserve grand champion – in the Royal open division.
Even more amazing is that the trio fell just six points shy of walking away with the grand championship. The team’s goal had been to place in the top 100.
River in Crisis
The combination of record low flows on the Yellowstone River, high temperatures, congregating fish and the emergence of a deadly microscopic parasite that led to the death of thousands of fish during a two-week period in August. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks made the unprecedented move of closing the Yellowstone River and its tributaries to all recreational activities.
The closure encompasses 183 miles from Gardiner to the Highway 212 bridge at Laurel, as well as the Stillwater River. Guide services and all recreational water activities were banned while FWP biologists assessed the alarming occurrence.
10 POUNDS OF METH ON I-90
In May a routine traffic stop for speeding on I-90 ended with a sheriff’s deputy and the new K9 — Figo — finding approximately 10 pounds of methamphetamine in a car occupied by three men. One of the men had previously been deported from the United States. Two of the occupants initially provided false names and all three have since pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking crimes.
FISHTAIL METH CASE
Fishtail meth kingpin Merrill Clark Gardner, 62, pleaded guilty to and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for his role
in possessing with the intent to distribute more than 500 grams of meth between January 2013 and June 2015 in Fishtail and at other locations.
In July, Absarokee resident and co-defendant Brett Clouse pleaded guilty to meth and money laundering charges, admitting to federal investigators that he transported 178 pounds of meth to Fishtail during a 2-year period. Clouse is awaiting sentencing.