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Last Saturday night, an unusual band of conventioneers descended on downtown Missoula. The couple dozen red-suited, bar-hopping merriment-makers called themselves Santacon, ho-ho-hoing their way into and dancing right out of a string of Missoula nightspots.

They also sang, mostly a ribald rendition of “Deck the Halls” that included admissions of fondness for naughty girls and reindeer as well as a profanely expressed preference for cold beer over cookies. Many of the serenaded played along.

Stockman’s was particularly generous, offering advice in addition to holiday libations. Said one patron, a gambler who stepped away from the poker table when Santa came to Stock’s, “It’s a good show, but there’s some bad B.O.”

Well, how often do you dry clean your Santa suit?

The VFW’s karaoke mistress commanded revelers to “get a book, pick a song and wait your turn.” But nothing can stop the force of two dozen Santas, and judging by the gauntlet of hi-fives through which the roving party departed, a matronly scolding from the head table that the “use of foul language [is] a disrespect to the vets” was delivered on insufficient authority.

Ringleaders of the event point to Santarchy as an organizing principle. Social conventions like cover charges, ID checks and karaoke queues crumble when Santacon comes to town. But Santacon inevitably falls prey to the force it creates; by last call, Santas had begun sheering off.

“It wouldn’t be Santacon without a significant amount of fragmentation,” one veteran explained. Another Santa nodded in agreement: “It’s fractals, man, red and green fractals.”

•••

In a Dec. 20 letter, Montana Public Power again urged the board of NorthWestern Energy to consider its twice-rejected buyout offer, a move that comes after weeks of small but meaningful maneuvers by NorthWestern and its shareholders. The battle for ownership of NorthWestern, which the five-city Montana coalition began in 2004, is increasingly being fought with strategically timed letters and leaks from all sides. NorthWestern’s shareholders, in particular, seem to be growing increasingly restless: One recently filed a lawsuit alleging the company is stiff-arming suitors to maintain senior managers’ jobs; Harbert Distressed Investment Master Fund, a major shareholder that’s publicly supported MPPI’s offer, revealed Dec. 15 that NorthWestern’s chief executive had asked Harbert to sell its shares and that “the limit of our patience has been reached.”

MPPI Chairman Mike Kadas thinks these and other shareholder rumblings indicate increasing pressure on NorthWestern’s leadership, which could be good for MPPI. However, he says, shareholders’ apparent interest in a merger offer from South Dakota utility Black Hills Corp. is cause for concern.

How NorthWestern will respond to MPPI’s latest salvo is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: the frequency and firepower of the utility fight is only heating up.

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