City hopes to employ Mountain Water workers despite last-minute legal maneuver

water

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Attorneys representing the city of Missoula in the condemnation case against Mountain Water Co. will proceed to acquire the utility as soon as the Montana Supreme Court decides the case, they said this week.

In a briefing before the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday, attorneys also said the city has disputed a last-minute request by Mountain Water to further review the costs and fees incurred in the case by the city.

While Missoula District Court Judge Karen Townsend has yet to issue a ruling, the motion for additional discovery further complicates the city’s efforts to bring the workers into city employment if and when acquisition occurs.

Still, the city maintains, it will continue to offer jobs to the employees.

“We’ve been consistent in our message to the employees, that we value their experience and knowledge,” said Natasha Prinzing Jones, a member of the city’s legal team. “They’re wanted as employees, and their participation is wanted right now as we discuss transition.”

Jones offered her briefing in part to bring the council up to speed on the evolving case. The Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Mountain Water’s appeal last week, and it’s expected to render a decision this summer.

With an order pending, the city has set out to draft a new water utility ordinance guiding future ownership. It slowed the process, however, after several employees with Mountain Water criticized the draft, calling it heavy handed.

Employees followed on Tuesday by filing a motion for additional discovery with District Court, seeking to review the fees and costs incurred in the case by the city. Mountain Water believes the information is needed to assess the city’s own claim that the fees and costs incurred by the utility and its former owner, The Carlyle Group, are unreasonable.

In papers filed this week, the city contends that Mountain Water and its employees have unnecessarily delayed the court’s ruling regarding their fee application. Mountain Water was ordered in January to provide documentation supporting its claim of fees.

“Instead of complying, the defendants filed a series of spreadsheets claiming millions of dollars in fees, costs and expenses with no meaningful description of the work they had allegedly performed,” the city argues in the latest brief. “The defendants have not supported their discovery requests with any statute, rule or court decision that entitles them to re-open discovery.”

The latest dispute plays out as the city attempts to coax Mountain Water’s local workers into city employment.

Over the past year, Mountain Water’s employees have said they’d suffer harm if the city took ownership of the utility. Among their concerns, they’ve cited a loss in benefits and a less secure work environment.

District Court disagreed with those concerns, saying the employees’ status was uncertain no matter what happened in the case, as the company was being purchased by any number of parties. The court also found that the city’s offer to the employees was fair and reasonable.

“It’s an analysis that has to happen on an employee-by-employee basis,” Jones said regarding pay and benefits. “That would be worked out for those employees who choose to come over with city ownership.”

Mayor John Engen said Wednesday he was pleased with the performance of the city’s legal team during arguments before the Montana Supreme Court. He also said the city hopes to reach an agreement with Mountain Water’s employees and keep them on the job.

“I want to make it very clear that we continue to be interested in having all those employees come work for the city,” Engen said. “We’ve been nothing, I hope, but consistent in letting folks know that we’ll do our level best to figure out ways to ensure they don’t suffer as a product of coming to work with the city.”

Townsend has directed Mountain Water to submit any claims to the court by May 10. The court will reserve ruling on the claims until it completes its review.

“We are truly in the final leg of this case,” said Jones. “The appeal has been argued, and will we await an order from the Supreme Court. We’re nearing the finish line, so the employees are faced with a decision and it’s coming up soon.”