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FJBC narrowly approves new legal representation

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ST. IGNATIUS — Disagreement about how to handle mounting costs and a multi-frontal legal battle line preceded the Flathead Joint Board of Control’s narrow decision on Oct. 17 to hire a Kalispell law firm as general counsel. 

In a 6-5 vote, the board hired the Kalvig Law Firm to replace attorney Jon Metropoulos who quit in early October after approximately two decades on the job. Representatives of one of the state’s top environmental law firms also told irrigation commissioners on Oct. 15 that they would quit work on several court cases if Metropoulos was not retained in a governmental affairs role for the next six months. 

“Understand what you are up against. It’s not really a matter of one or two litigation pieces,” said Jeff Hindoien, attorney for Gough, Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman. “It’s really, in terms of us looking at it down the road, as big, complex, and high stakes piece of legal work as either one of us has seen, and I’ve worked for the governor. I’ve dealt with Libby and asbestos. I’ve dealt with the Clark Fork Superfund cleanup. This is not just something that one law firm or one lobbyist is going to solve your problems on.” 

Hindoien said he didn’t foresee his firm being able to carry on in the next 60 days without Metropoulos’s expertise to handle government relations as the final deliberations on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact draws near. The timeline for Metropoulos’s involvement in the four months after that was sketchy, with Hindoien skeptical any one law firm could handle the multiple legal battles the board has brewing in federal and district court. 

“You’re going to have all these parallel litigation paths to manage that probably aren’t manageable by one firm in Montana, even the biggest firms in Montana,” Hindoien said. 

Board chairman Boone Cole agreed. 

“When it comes to the CSKT lawsuit, I don’t think there is any firm in Montana that can handle that,” Cole said. 

He suggested hiring a New Mexico legal team that specializes in water rights litigation and has experience working with the United States Supreme Court. The New Mexico firm would work with the Kalvig law firm. 

“Some of us believe we are facing very, very complex issues with some of our litigation,” Cole told lawyers from the Kalvig firm. “Some of us have serious concerns about what we perceive to be a lack of experience in treaty law and federal reserved water law.” 

Attorney Bruce Frederickson of the Kalvig law firm said he was confident his team could help the joint board tackle its legal issues. The team has practiced law in both state, federal and water court, and has experience handling complicated cases, he said. 

“Are we experts in every conceivable issue that you guys are going to deal with?” Frederickson asked. “Of course not. There’s no lawyer on the face of the earth that can know everything about every conceivable issue. They don’t exist. Is the bulk of our practice water law? It depends on how you define that … What you guys are dealing with isn’t water law. You are dealing with some very complex litigation in federal court both with the turnover case and the other federal case. That’s what we do.” 

Frederickson said that his firm is adept at finding other experts and attorneys to help defend cases as needed. He also predicted needing to hire a public relations representative to help get the board’s message on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact into a more favorable media spotlight. 

“I hire people to help us that can provide me with that detailed knowledge that I need to properly litigate that case,” Frederickson said. 

Some commissioners voted against hiring the Kalvig firm because they thought the board should shop around a little longer for an attorney instead of hiring the first ones that the board interviewed. Some commissioners wanted to wait until after Oct. 20, when another attorney was available to talk with the board. 

“We have a law firm that has been brought up by other commissioners,” Commissioner Shane Orien said. “I think you owe it to them to at least listen.” 

Commissioner Gene Posivio said time was too short to wait. 

“We need to make a decision,” Posivio said. “We need to put our feet on the ground and go.” 

Cole said the board wanted to be cognizant of spending money to establish a relationship with a firm. 

“It’s a significant investment in these first few months that we just made with Gough, Shanahan and it’s about to be flushed down the toilet,” Cole said. 

The Kalvig firm will charge the board up to $5,000 for October and $20,000 per month through January, when the price will be renegotiated. 

The Gough, Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman firm charged the board approximately $25,000 for two months of work. 

It was unclear which law firm will represent the board at an Oct. 28 meeting of the state’s legislative Water Policy interim committee. 

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