The Great Falls Symphony: Regaining Trust Starts At The Top

The Great Falls Symphony: Regaining Trust Starts At The Top

By Emily Wolfram

Warren Buffet said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The Great Falls Symphony Association (GFSA) is learning this lesson after emailing a PDF letter to the five members of the Chinook Winds quintet to inform them that their jobs will be eliminated at the end of May.

I was the GFSA Manager of the Core from 2016 to 2019 and after resigning I continued playing as section cellist with the orchestra. I am also married to the bassoonist of the Chinook Winds. My experience gives me a unique perspective on where the GFSA was eight years ago and how it has come to its current state. My goal is to provide context to information and aid in understanding the current situation.

The Chinook Winds is one of two chamber ensembles in the GFSA “Core.” Along with the Cascade Quartet, they have performed in Great Falls and communities across the state for decades. The symphony has been struggling with finances for several years and its leadership has chosen to fix the problem for the moment by eliminating the quintet, a 30-year legacy. This sacrifice may help the budget in the short term, but the problems that have led to this choice and arisen as a result of it will still exist after the quintet is gone.

One recurring question is “how did they decide to do this?” It seems as if those in charge lack a basic understanding of what these musicians do and how it affects the symphony’s ability to deliver its mission and serve the community. The gap in knowledge makes sense when you consider that the GFSA’s organizational hierarchy has been gradually altered to isolate leadership from the mission. At the start of Hillary Rose Shepherd’s tenure as the executive director, board meetings included reports from representatives of the orchestra, choir, Cascade Quartet, and Chinook Winds. This opportunity to connect the board with “the boots on the ground” of music making has disappeared over the years. At present, no one from the Core is allowed to attend board meetings. There is a board role called “director representative of the orchestra,” but since this person is not required to be part of the musician-elected orchestra council it is unclear how this role is obligated to represent the expertise and interests of the musicians.

A lack of skilled administrative leadership has also plagued the GFSA. Management has not utilized resources wisely or budgeted adequately for operational changes. In 2022 the Core musicians agreed to not accept a raise or cost of living adjustment (COLA) for this fiscal year in order to support their colleagues and help the GFSA reach budget goals. As the core had advocated for, the symphony increased per-service fees for non-core orchestral musicians. While this was a positive move on behalf of the performers, it was a significant increase in operating expenses and it is not clear that there was a new grant, donor, or fundraising initiative to cover the cost.

Poor decisions and missed opportunities are also evident in how the GFSA handled the Core itself. There was a Manager of the Core position filled until 2019 (when I resigned), after which the GFSA discontinued this role. At this point, the symphony all but stopped utilizing the Chinook Winds to serve its mission, earn touring revenue, garner local support through outreach, and expand its impact as it had done successfully in the past. In 2022 the GFSA also started using The Newberry for the Chamber Series concerts. The venue is popular and may have helped draw a few new audience members but it was clearly an unsustainable choice considering prior history of this program’s budget.

The most worrisome administrative failure is leadership knowing that the Core residency program was a financial problem for eight years and, in all that time, not finding solutions or even communicating about it. Melanie Pozdol, past Chinook Winds oboist (2012-2016) and current Associate Director of Prospect Management and Analytics at the Kellogg School of Management, commented “I had a one-year overlap with Hillary at the end of my tenure with the GFSA. If the core program was facing serious financial issues then, this would have been useful information for the entire organization to be made aware of. I certainly don’t recall this being transparently communicated to the core musicians at that time; if it was, the extent of the financial issues were not made explicitly known to the GFSA musicians as a whole. Fundraising, relationship building, and organizational change take time, so I think that if new solutions had been analyzed back then perhaps the GFSA would be in a different place today. Better transparency and communication along the way would have also helped to offer better solutions for the long-term.”

Administrative problems aside, the sudden ending of a beloved ensemble has caused a loss of trust on multiple levels—the ramifications of which will be felt now and well into the future.

The GFSA reputation has been jeopardized in the orchestra world in Montana and beyond and this will affect audition pools in the immediate future. The nature of the Chinook Winds’ dismissal was appalling to professional musicians everywhere. All quintet members are moving on and the GFSA will need to find substitutes and hold auditions for next season’s replacements but potential applicants will likely hesitate to apply for an organization that divests in the quality of its programming and treats its employees this way. Sources close to the orchestra also report that some on the GFSA substitute list have decided not to sign contracts for the next season because of what happened to their colleagues. Coincidentally, Grant Harville announced his own resignation in February 2024 and the GFSA will be conducting a music director search in the next two years. The elimination of the quintet stands to inhibit efforts to hire a qualified music director who may have been drawn to the organization by a program like the Core.

Many of the rest of the orchestra have also lost trust in the administrative leadership. There is so much about this choice that contradicts the symphony’s own mission and values that they are struggling to make sense of it. Symphony musicians were made aware of the GFSA’s financial troubles when they rallied to help with the annual fund drive in December 2023. But no one had any warning that blame was being put on the Chinook Winds specifically. Non-core symphony musicians are also concerned about how this loss will affect the overall quality of orchestral performances. Dennis Dell, GFSA musician since 1973, says, “This is a huge loss…with the efforts of many community leaders, we added the Cascade Quartet that gave us outstanding leadership for our string sections. Then we added the Chinook Winds that pushed the quality of our group to a new level. In the past, when we have faced problems, we got together all interested patrons to solve the problems and to keep our symphony alive and continuing to grow…The decision to eliminate the Chinook Winds, coming from a small group of people is a huge set-back to a group I have given most of my adult life to as a performer!” Longtime GFSA cellist, Ruth Johnson also recognizes the loss will be felt beyond the concerts at the Mansfield. She notes, “The loss of these musicians will unequivocally challenge the GFSA to maintain the level of musicality that has been established with the strong core that the Chinook Winds have provided. As a retired music educator for the Great Falls Public Schools, I feel remorse for future music students who will be without their inspiring master classes, performances, and private lessons. Our music programs have been stronger having the Chinook Winds performing and teaching in our community.”

The most upsetting breach of trust is between the GFSA administration and the public. Three days after the infamous PDF to the Chinook Winds, the GFSA released a statement (ironically another PDF-style letter) to apologize and explain itself. It states “There have been several conversations with our musicians, including the Chinook Winds, regarding the Symphony’s inability to continue deficit spending…The members of the Winds were also aware for several months that the Chinook Winds program was of specific concern.” According to both Core ensembles, this is false. The quintet members made it clear in an interview with The Electric that they expected some kind of cut in pay or programs but not the elimination of an entire ensemble. There was no indication that the quintet was a financial concern apart from the quartet, nor is there any logical argument for this to be true: they are nearly parallel ensembles. In the months leading up to the decision, there were regular meetings including members of both ensembles and neither one was singled out as a particular problem. The latest social media statement from the Cascade Quartet falls along the same lines. “We were prepared for across-the-board salary cuts (including the administration), but not for this. We were never aware that this outcome, the Cascade Quartet being retained but not the Chinook Winds, was being considered.” The GFSA letter ends with, “it took many years to conclude that retiring the program was a necessary financial step.” The phrasing of this statement is troubling because it sounds as if ending the quintet has been on the table for years and the information was withheld from supporters and musicians who could have stepped in to help. The 23-24 season would have been a good time to appeal to the community for support. Just last month, Norman Menzales celebrated the culmination of a four-year recording project with a flute concerto performance at the Mansfield Theater and the Chinook Winds had a well-received Chamber Series collaboration with MSU Billings artist Jodi Lightner. All of the positivity surrounding these recent events make the GFSA’s decision and statements more bewildering and apparently disingenuous.

Trust is a hard thing to earn and an easy thing to lose. If trust is lost in a relationship, sometimes it can be regained with a lot of time and a clear, consistent improvement in behavior—if one is lucky. In order for an organization like a symphony to recover trust, change has to take place among the people who make decisions: leadership. As a group, the board of directors and executive director carry the responsibility of being stewards of this orchestra. That is where we—the current musicians, community members, patrons, donors, and future auditioners—will look for change.

Russell Rowland Interviews Ken Toole- Check It Out!

Russell Rowland Interviews Ken Toole- Check It Out!

If you are interested in what it was like growing up with Montana Historian K. Ross Toole, the formation of the Montana Human Rights Network, the fight against electric deregulation, the extremism of the Gianforte administration and the Cult of Trump, you might want to check out this podcast with Russell Rowland interviewing Ken Toole.

Episode Eleven – Ken Toole – by Russell Rowland (

Editor’s Choice: How the John Birch Society Bit Ravalli County

Editor’s Choice: How the John Birch Society Bit Ravalli County


A Tale of Cats, Cows and Anti-Vaxxers


How the John Birch Society Bit Ravalli County and Gave It Rabies

By: Bill Lacroix
First published:

I don’t call my cat “Fatso” lightly. It’s not who she is, it’s where she likes to sit and when, which is on my lap when I’m using my laptop. Her body blobs onto my keyboard and, when I try to write, my minimal hand movements harsh her mellow, which prods her to give the back of my hand a nip of annoyance. That’s endearing, but, not too long ago, one of her love bites broke the skin and became infected, which recalled a ‘70s pop song that should have been killed at birth (“Cat Scratch Fever”) which, in turn, triggered a temporary bout of irrational cognitive dissonance (anger mixed with conspiracy theories), the sort of thing that short-circuits your brain and sends you to an emergency room for drugs because you never know WHO or WHAT is out to get you in Ravalli County. It could be your cat. Or Ted Nugent.

To point: Ravalli County has had a problem with science, for a while. During the Covid-19 pandemic, our local cops couldn’t possibly enforce humane safety protocols to keep other peoples’ grandparents from dying because of other peoples’ conspiracy theories. Alas—and as a direct result—more people died of Covid than in traffic accidents. Paradoxically, these same cops could and did enforce speed limits throughout the pandemic, including ticketing me for going 29 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. Paradoxically-squared: local paranoia over Nazi-nurses torturing transplanted retirees with freedom-smothering N-95 masks birthed the local “Breathe-Free Montana” group, a John Birch-flavored extremist outfit whose adherents recently succeeded in orchestrating a coup against the already-entrenched, already-hard-right-but-apparently-not-hard-right-enough Republican Central Committee that has had a stranglehold on our local politics since that black guy became president.

So there I sat in a Ravalli County examining room which, in a reality-based county, would be a “safe space,” but, remember, we’re talking Ravalli County. The nice nurse left to “get the doctor” and, less than two minutes later, a Hamilton Police officer barged in unannounced, in “full metal jacket,” demanding that I either surrender my cat to be quarantined for 10 days in kitty jail or that I sign an affidavit that I will do it myself and that, if my cat escaped during that time and caused damage to other peoples’ property, I would be liable. As an example, he cited the possibility that my cat could bite a cow and give the whole herd rabies.

His logic, of course, was impeccable but, as my hand throbbed in my lap, I also thought that maybe I had contracted rabies or some other hallucinatory microbe. I had to get rid of this guy so I could get drugs and, thankfully, cognitive dissonance is usually a passing thing, and so I told him that I would be glad to produce a record of her recent rabies shot. Never mind, he countered. I must either surrender Fatso or sign, which I did. The catch: the affidavit stipulated that, after her 10-day quarantine, I would bring her in to the station to prove she wasn’t a rabid John Bircher yet, which was beauty-cubed, since I thought a conversation with local law enforcement about cows being more important to them than people would be priceless. I have no intention of taking Fatso in for her parole hearing and, to date, we are still on the lam, awaiting a wonderful conversation. BTW: Anyone know a good lawyer who doesn’t have rabies yet?






Guest Opinion: Let’s Set The Record Straight

Guest Opinion: Let’s Set The Record Straight

By: James C. Nelson, Montana Supreme Court Justice (Ret).

On February 8th Senator (and lawyer) Steve Fitzpatrick (R-SD 10) published a guest view in the Independent Record chastising the Montana Supreme Court for a “stunning” decision. The Senator’s litany of complaints included that the Court violated the separation of powers, “eviscerated the Legislature’s power to make rules and manage its own affairs” . . . “granted itself the power to punish the Legislature,” invaded the province of the legislature to interpret its own rules, accused the Legislature of bad faith, and [took]the legislature to task for violating its norms, all the while ignoring its own norms and precedents.

The Senator identified neither the case nor what the Court’s decision was actually about. The name of the case is Forward Montana v. State by and through Gianforte, 2024 MT 19. The Court’s decision is well-written and easy to follow; read it at: FORWARD MONTANA v. STATE BY AND THROUGH GIANFORTE (2024) | FindLaw Forward Montana and other plaintiffs are referred to as Appellants.

The case.

During the 2021 session, the Legislature considered SB 319, which dealt with the regulation of joint political fundraising committees. Like most, the bill went back and forth between the Senate and the House and was amended. A free conference committee, appointed to consider amendments, apparently did not. However, two days before the Legislature adjourned, this committee added four new sections to the bill during a 17-minute meeting, closed to the public. Several of these amendments were almost verbatim from a bill that failed to pass during the session. The bill, so amended, passed both houses in the last 24 hours of the session.

Appellants challenged two of the amendments for violating Montana’s Constitution, Article V, sections 11(1) and (3). In pertinent part, these require: (1) [a] law shall be passed by bill which shall not be so altered or amended on its passage through the legislature as to change its original purpose, and (3) [e]ach bill, except 2 general appropriation bills and bills for the codification and general revision of the laws, shall contain only one subject, clearly expressed in its title.

After various proceedings and hearings, the District Court concluded that the amended bill violated both of the foregoing constitutional mandates. The State, represented by the Attorney General, chose not to appeal—resulting in the trial court’s decision becoming the law of that case.

Appellants moved for attorney fees under the “private attorney general doctrine,” and § 25-10-711, MCA–exceptions to the “American Rule” under which litigants generally bear their own fees. The District Court denied the fee request. Appellants appealed that denial. The Supreme Court reversed and applied the doctrine.

The decision.

In reversing the District Court’s decision, the Supreme Court concluded, among other things, that: Appellants were entitled to attorney fees because “[they] alone [vindicated] important constitutional interests. The Legislature disregarded its constitutional limitations, and the Attorney General offered no substantive or constitutional interests in defense of these actions;” because “[t]he Legislature must follow certain rules in enacting legislation to ensure transparency and public participation;” and “because of the process through which the unconstitutional sections of this Bill came to be: an obviously unlawful Bill adopted through willful disregard of constitutional obligations and legislative rules and norms.”

Thus, this case had nothing to do with the parade of horribles described by Senator Fitzpatrick. Rather, this case involved the issue of attorney fees awarded to a litigant pursuant to the private attorney general doctrine.

More to the point, this case involved a challenge to unconstitutional legislation rammed through at the end of the session and the Legislature sucker- punching the public’s Constitutional right to know.

Ironically, Senator Fitzpatrick demonized the Court for doing its job—i.e. holding the Legislature and Executive accountable for not doing theirs.

Guest Opinion: Oppose Montana Renewable’s Wastewater Permit

Guest Opinion: Oppose Montana Renewable’s Wastewater Permit

Why I Oppose Montana Renewable’s EPA Wastewater Permit

By Lisa Schmidt For WTF406

I raise cattle and sheep on my ranch that, fortunately, has 16 natural springs. Those springs are vital to my livelihood so I protect them fiercely. Contamination of the groundwater would cause irreparable harm to my natural resources and livelihood. Montana Renewables, a subsidiary of Calumet, produces biodiesel in Great Falls. The most efficient method to dispose of the wastewater is to treat it at the refinery. No-brainer.

Instead, the company currently trucks the wastewater 85 miles to load it on railcars and haul it to out-of-state waste sites. This is a temporary disposal plan. Montana Renewables has contracted with Montalban Oil and Gas Operations, hoping to inject that wastewater into two abandoned oil wells at the end of a gravel road 91 miles from the refinery and about five miles as the crow flies from my springs. These wells are within a half mile of Dupuyer Creek, which flows into Lake Francis. Lake Francis is the source for drinking water in Conrad, Valier and Brady, along with irrigation water for 77,000 acres of cropland.

To inject wastewater, owner Patrick Montalban needs a Class V permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. I’m concerned about this plan for three important reasons.
First, Montalban’s permit application describes the injectate materials as “including, but not limited to” vegetable oils and animal fat, among others. In other words, anything could go down those wells. Montana Renewables has never provided comprehensive test results of the wastewater to the Pondera County commissioners, Great Falls water treatment managers or the public, despite repeated requests.

A basic test of potential wastewater reveals that it is contaminated with trace amounts of arsenic, barium and lead, among other things, along with sky-high levels of salts and phosphorus. Water treatment managers normally treat water that contains 3 to 5 parts per million of phosphorus. Montana Renewables wastewater contains 250 ppm. Water treatment managers estimate rates would have to increase by $3 million to $4 million each year if they had to pull that much phosphorus from the water they treat.

Second, the permit application states that 171 times more material will be injected under pressure into the ground than was originally removed. Two containment layers of rock are supposed to maintain separation between the injectate and groundwater. Those layers are limestone and shale. Limestone is known to crack under pressure and shale is only semi-permeable, not impermeable, under pressure.

The permit application requires monitoring with the quarter-mile Area of Review. But Montalban and Montana Renewables corporate officer Bruce Fleming note that the Madison sandstone layer where they want to inject materials runs from Canada to North Dakota, so they have lots of space to fill with contaminated wastewater. But the Madison layer is also a source of groundwater past the quarter-mile, monitored Area of Review. Either the injectate remains within a quarter mile of the wells and builds incredible pressure or it is allowed to flow beyond the Area of Review and potentially contaminate groundwater.

Third, Fleming says people can drink this wastewater. This declaration that people can drink wastewater that contains more than 50 times the amount of phosphorus is only true because the federal government doesn’t have a drinking water standard for phosphorus, yet water treatment plants are required to remove it. Excessive phosphorus can cause diarrhea and hardening of organs and arteries. Fleming is not quite lying, but he certainly is not answering questions in the public’s best interests or being transparent about the process. One has to wonder why.
Montana Renewables has developed an exciting new process to produce biodiesel. They have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the entire world how to handle wastewater the right way. They should embrace that opportunity.

The deadline for comments to the EPA is February 15.
Learn more at

The Grinch in Great Falls

The Grinch in Great Falls

By Pamela Carroll

On Tuesday, December 12, 2023, the Grinch revealed itself in Great Falls, Montana. I saw the mean-spirited character manifested in citizens of Cascade County. 

Cascade County Commission held their bimonthly meeting at the Expo Park in anticipation of large public attendance. Commissioner Joe Brigg brought forth a resolution to remove election duties from the Clerk and Recorder. This resolution has been talked about for several years. 

Public comments were heard from over one hundred people. With many more in attendance to witness the spectacle of vile and spiteful testimony. This went on for seven long and excruciating hours. 

As I sat in the audience listening to the public comments, I was so ashamed of the behavior of those speaking in opposition to the resolution. These are my neighbors who used threats, yelled, and told outright lies. The Bible quotes were thrown out over and over to attack commissioners Joe Briggs and Jim Larson. Two pastors in our community spewed hateful words. Not once did I hear these so-called church attending people speak to the call to love thy neighbor as thyself. It was like watching school yard bullies and toddler temper tantrums. Never in the 62 years that I have lived in Great Falls have I ever experienced anything like the hateful actions and words that I saw that day. I fought back tears of sadness that day for my community. 

The restraint shown by Commissioners Joe Briggs, Jim Larson and those that spoke in support of the resolution is to be commended. Supporters spoke with decorum and integrity while expressing their concerns for the election process that has been flawed since Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant has taken office. They stuck to the facts and kept religion and emotion out of their testimony. 

We are in need of change in Great Falls and around Montana as this type of extremist behavior spreads and basic community norms around public discussion and debate dissolve. Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect is the appeal to theocratic ideals which could not be more un-American. This country was founded on a fundamental separation between church and state, and we have upheld that value, embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution, for almost 250 years. The opponents’ dogmatic appeal to a narrow-minded, intolerant brand of Christianity would be ridiculous if it were not so fundamentally dangerous and unconstitutional. 

There is hard work ahead for all reasonable people of goodwill in this community and across Montana to try to bring us back to a semblance of decency and behavioral norms of civility and respect necessary for the community to not only survive but thrive. “Love thy Neighbor no Exception.”