A group of eastern Montana ranchers represented by a Billings law firm has filed a brief with the Montana Supreme Court, contending the city of Missoula failed to meet the statutory requirements needed to win its condemnation case against Mountain Water Co.
The brief has left the city and its attorneys questioning the group’s funding history, its ties to the Republican-held Montana Public Service Commission, and its true motivations in the case.
In the brief, United Property Owners of Montana, an advocacy group comprised of ranchers based in Roy, contends the Montana Constitution provides “strong and important safeguards” against the taking of private property, something it’s asking the high court to consider.
The group also believes Missoula District Court Judge Karen Townsend wrongfully weighed public opinion when she ruled that it was “more necessary” for the water system to be publicly owned.
“District Court went so far as to hold that one of the benefits derived to the city was ‘support of a majority of the city’s elected leadership,’ ” the ranchers argue. “The public opinion evidence should be stricken.”
In a nod to the Montana Public Service Commission, held by five Republicans, the group also contends that District Court should not interfere with the responsibility of the PSC.
The group believes it is the PSC’s role to supervise and regulate the operation of public utilities. It argues that Judge Townsend usurped the PSC’s role in reaching the decision that allowed Missoula to exercise eminent domain over Mountain Water Co.
“This is not the District Court’s job,” the brief states. “The PSC is the authority chosen by a democratically elected Legislature to regulate Mountain Water.”
The group’s brief also touches on the topic of local control, saying most people are for it until they’re not.
“Local control has no inherent bona fides that the public honestly embraces in all cases,” the group argues. “Propose that federal lands be turned over to the control of the 56 county commissions in Montana and see how committed people are to the ethereal idea of ‘local control.’ ”
Missoula Mayor John Engen and attorneys representing the city questioned the motivation of United Property Owners of Montana – a group that lists former Montana Republican Party executive director Chuck Denowh as its policy director and Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke’s former communication director, Shelby DeMars, as its lobbyist.
Engen said the group isn’t looking to protect property rights in the Mountain Water case, since the only property in question is owned by The Carlyle Group, an international corporate conglomerate valued at $800 billion and headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“It’s fair to wonder who’s really paying for UPOM’s participation in this case and why,” Engen said. “This case is about the people of Missoula controlling their water future.”
Of the 129 incorporated communities in Montana, Engen said, 128 own their water system. Missoula remains the only Montana city where water consumers’ payments go to “wealthy executives” in California and Washington, D.C., he added.
“UPOM’s leadership appears to consist of eastern Montana ranchers who likely do not use any municipal water system, let alone Montana’s only privately owned water monopoly,” Engen said. “They have no stake in the outcome of this case, and no say in Missoula’s water future.”
Scott Stearns, an attorney at Boone Karlberg law firm representing the city, also questioned UPOM’s motivations, along with its funding sources.
“United Property Owners of Montana claimed in its filing to the Montana Supreme Court that it’s interested in protection of Montanans’ property rights,” Stearns said. “By ‘Montanans,’ they apparently mean out-of-state interests that happen to own land in Montana.”
In prior court filings and at the Legislature, Stearns said, UPOM has lobbied Montana lawmakers to restrict stream access for Montana fishermen and to make it harder for Montana hunters to access public lands.
In a search of campaign finance reports filed with the Montana Office of Political Practices, UPOM has paid Denowh and DeMars in a lobbying capacity, including $12,000 in 2011, $5,000 in 2013, and $3,500 in 2015.
Denowh and DeMars are also principal members of The Montana Group, a political consulting and government action firm based in Helena.
“If UPOM wants to look out for the rights of Montanans, they shouldn’t be carrying water for a D.C.-based hedge fund that a Montana court determined is not living up to industry standards and is doing a poor job of utilizing Missoula’s water resources,” Stearns said.
Denowh said the group was not a political group, but rather a nonprofit advocacy group claiming roughly 300 members across the state. Most of the group’s members work in agriculture, he said.
“We represent close to 4 million acres of private property in the state,” said Denowh. “We really see this (Mountain Water) case as a concerning precedent that could be set in terms of what’s an appropriate use of eminent domain. It’s really got us worried.”
As a nonprofit, Denowh said, the group is not required to list its donors.
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