By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
A newly elected member of the Missoula City Council is pushing to place the purchase of Mountain Water Co. in the hands of voters, saying it would give the city “a graceful exit” if they voted to discontinue efforts to acquire the public’s drinking water system.
Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells introduced his referral to the Committee of the Whole on Wednesday, asking that a referendum be placed on the General Election ballot in November.
However, his referral included no resolution or proposed ballot language and didn’t get a committee vote.
“No resolution was attached to the motion, so there’s nothing to vote on,” said council president Marilyn Marler, representing Ward 6. “We have to give public notice before we vote on something.”
Wells, who took the seat of conservative Ward 2 council member Adam Hertz in November, said he was seeking a simple up or down vote on the city’s years-long effort to acquire Mountain Water.
The city has won several rounds in court over the past year, including a ruling on necessity and value. The running legal bill stands at roughly $5.3 million – a figure that concerns Wells.
If the court later determines the city is responsible for paying the defendants’ legal fees as well, Wells said, the cost could rise to $12 million.
“I would like to put it out to the public,” Wells said. “I think it’s a win-win situation. If the majority of voters said no, it’s a graceful exit for everyone. If they said yes, then it doesn’t matter what the purchase price or legal fees are, everyone’s for it.”
Mountain Water and its previous owner, The Carlyle Group, didn’t appeal the $88.6 million value a water commission placed on the utility in a District Court hearing in November.
However, the company did appeal an earlier ruling on necessity to the Montana Supreme Court. That hearing is set for April and, if the city prevails, it will likely finalize its purchase of the water system.
Several council members voiced opposition to Wells’ proposed referendum, saying the process has nearly played out in court and has taken years of legal wrangling to complete.
“I talk to many, many people in my ward and there’s very strong support for owning our water company, so I have no problem going ahead with this litigation,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “We’re 90 percent of the way there. It would be ridiculous to back out at this point.”
Jones also questioned the use of referendums to make law. She said the efforts have backfired in other cities. Such tactics, she added, give an advantage to those who can spend the most on a campaign.
“It boils down to who has the biggest PR budget to push the referendum,” said Jones. “There’s clearly a big corporation on the other side of this that’s willing to put all sorts of ads in the paper. It’s a very slippery slope and referendums in general do not create good law.”
In November, six seats opened up on the Missoula City Council. Several new members ran and were elected on the platform of continuing the city’s efforts to purchase Mountain Water.
“We live in a representative democracy where individuals are voted to represent their constituents to the best of their ability,” said Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess. “We had an intervening election in 2015. We had a large number of council members in that election who ran on the platform of continuing this action, and the voters responded to that.”
While the committee took no action Wednesday due to the lack of a resolution, it opened the discussion to public comment.
“You never came to us to see if we in general wanted to buy the water company,” said Candi Matthew Jenkins, who said she favored a referendum. “That’s a violation of our rights.”
Jason Wiener disagreed, saying the financial might of Mountain Water’s Canadian owner – Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp. – would taint a local referendum.
“They are already running ads that are full of half-truths and worse,” he said. “I expect their contempt for Montana law – which they’ve shown in the way they transferred the assets of Mountain Water – would only extend to our campaign finance law in an attempt to manipulate the process around a proposed referendum.”