By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
In a win for the city of Missoula, a District Court judge last week ordered Mountain Water to provide electronic access to the company’s customer service data, along with other information needed to ensure the utility’s smooth transition into public ownership.
Mountain Water, which opposed the order late last year in oral arguments, has appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. The city has asked for an expedited ruling.
In the latest order, District Judge Karen Townsend granted the city’s motion to take possession of Mountain Water under court-ordered supervision. That includes access to customer billing data and employee information.
“(Mountain Water) shall immediately provide the city with access to the … customer service data it has requested, including access for copying, testing and updating,” the court ordered in its latest decision. “(Mountain Water) shall immediately provide the city with the human resources information it has requested.”
Because the information may include sensitive or confidential information regarding workers who are not yet public employees, the court stated, the information shall be held under protective status.
Natasha Jones, an attorney with Boone Karlberg who is representing the city in the case, views the court’s ruling as favorable.
“The city believes it’s in our citizens’ best interest and the city’s best interest to take possession now,” she said. “We’ve asked the court to supervise that process, because we want to be ready to serve our citizens on Day One. We also want to be prepared for the employees so they have their jobs set on Day One, and get their paychecks set on Day One.”
Mountain Water has “strenuously” opposed the court’s decision on nearly all fronts.
The utility’s parent owner, Liberty Utilities, filed an emergency affidavit with the Montana Supreme Court arguing, among other things, that it shouldn’t be forced to hand over electronic customer data before any payment is tendered.
It also has opposed granting the city access to human resources materials. The company believes the city is looking to impose “compulsory labor” upon Mountain Water employees, arguing the Thirteenth Amendment, which “prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.”
Jones said the city has asked the state’s high court for an expeditious decision on the latest appeal. The city is also waiting on three other rulings still pending in a lower court, including a decision on attorney’s fees.
To date, according to Mayor John Engen, the city’s fees in the case stand at $6.6 million.
A separate court will also decide who will pay a group of local developers roughly $22 million for investments made to Mountain Water in recent years. The city believes the money is included in the $88.6 million valuation, though Mountain Water contends that it’s in addition to the utility’s value.
Members of the City Council, who still must determine the method it will use to fund the system, are pleased with the court’s latest ruling.
“I was pleased to see such an unambiguous order,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “It’ll be interesting to see the Supreme Court’s response to the writ appeal. I look forward to seeing compliance with it.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org