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Group of irrigators win lawsuit to dissolve FJBC

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POLSON – After about four years of working together, voting on issues, and managing funds concerning water distribution for irrigation, it was recently discovered that the Flathead Joint Board of Control isn’t a valid governmental entity.

Lake County District Court Judge James Manley ordered the board to dissolve on Jan. 30. “This order is effective immediately upon issuance regardless of any appeal sought by the FJBC,” he states in his ruling. 

Manley ordered each individual irrigation district to continue to operate separately and perform their necessary irrigation duties including tax assessments and signing warrants for the operation and maintenance of the irrigation system.

The judge’s decision came after it was brought to his attention that the board failed to hold an election allowing irrigators with project land to vote on whether or not the Flathead, Mission and Jocko irrigation districts within Lake and Flathead Counties should join together in 2014. They disbanded in Dec. of 2013 due to internal conflicts.

The ruling states: “FJBC violated Montana Code Annotated 85-7-1602 when it attempted to reform on May 27, 2014 by failing to hold an election of the irrigators. Due to this failure, the FJBC is not a valid governmental entity, and has no legal authority and remains dissolved as of December 12, 2013.” 

The court also issued an opinion that the special election regarding a public vote administered by the Lake County Election Office on whether or not the board should dissolve the first time in 2013 was only utilized as an advisory vote and was non-binding. During the Nov. 2013 election, the majority of irrigators didn’t want the board to disband. The results for that election were as follows: 36,593 irrigator votes were cast to retain the FJBC as a united representative, and 36,588 votes were against keeping the board together. Individually, the Flathead District voted not to keep the board together with 30,116 votes to 28,757. The Mission District voted to keep the board together with 5,516 for it and 4,699 against it. The Jocko District voted to keep the board together with 2,320 yes votes against 1,773 no votes. 

Mission Valley Irrigators United sued the FJBC in an effort to get the issues on the judge’s desk for review. The group is a local nonprofit corporation with five members including Jack Lake, Susan Lake, Jack Horner, Ralph Salomon and Janice Tusick. Member Susan Lake said the “grass roots” corporation gained support from other irrigators to help finance the lawsuit. “We felt that this was the only way we could be heard,” she said.

Susan said the members looked at state laws and became concerned that the FJBC wasn’t correctly following them. They brought the issue to several authorities including Lake County attorneys and commissioners and the Montana Attorney General. 

“The county said there was nothing they could do,” Susan said. She added that she didn’t think anyone in the government offices they contacted had any ill intent. They just didn’t have the authority over the board to take action. She said the group decided that the best way to move forward was to get a judge involved, so they filed a lawsuit in May 2016. 

The Mission Valley Irrigators also demonstrated in their lawsuit that the FJBC handled money in a negligent and reckless manner that resulted in the misappropriation of $221,000. The document states that the plaintiffs contend the negligence supports their argument that dissolution of the FJBC is not only required by law but will benefit irrigators. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating the case involving lost revenue. The board was able to recently recoup about half of the loss through an insurance claim. Claims for the remaining balance are in progress.

On May 27, 2014, the commissioners from each district got together and voted on a contract for the reformation of the joint board. The majority voted to reform the board. Flathead commissioners questioned the legality of the process and asked for more time. Flathead commissioners Paul Guenzler and Trent Coleman did not vote to support the reformation. 

In the findings of fact portion of the ruling, it states that commissioners seated at that time including Flathead Irrigation District commissioners Wayne Blevins, Paul Guenzler, Shane Orien, Trent Coleman, and Bruce White; Mission Irrigation District commissioners were Jerry Laskody, Tim Orr, and Gene Posivio; Jocko District commissioners were Boone Cole and John Trimble. Attorney Jon Metropoulos appeared as a consultant and FJBC Executive Manager Johanna Clark was on staff. 

The FJBC defendants admitted to the judge that they did not hold an election but denied that the reformation of the board was improper. They argued that they followed Montana Code 85-7-1601 that renders an election of the irrigators unnecessary, contending that the code states a joint board can be formed by contract or by election. 

In Manley’s conclusion, he states the defendants failed to follow code 85-7-1602, listed directly after the one they were utilizing, which does “clearly require” an election to form a joint board.  

The conclusion continues to state that the required election is fundamental to the democratic process in order for the opinions of the landowners within the districts to be represented when a joint board no longer exists, as was the case.

“At the May 27, 2014 meeting, landowners and commissioners from the Flathead Irrigation District spoke out against the unilateral signing of the contract, and requested more information on the process and more time to review the reformation contract,” the conclusion states. These landowners and commissioners suspected what was indeed the case – the dissolved FJBC was ignoring the legal requirements to form a joint board and not allowing the landowners their right to be heard on the issue via the election mandated by law.

“Plaintiffs, and all irrigators in the Irrigation Districts, have paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in litigation and lobbying fees taxed and spent by the defendants on various unsuccessful litigation campaigns since May 2014. Many of the issues litigated by defendants go far beyond their statutorily defined scope of ‘operation and maintenance of irrigation and/or drainage works and the delivery of water.’”

After the judge’s ruling, Paul Guenzler, who is currently a Flathead District commissioner, and was on the board when it illegally reformed, said he stands by the judge’s decision and hopes to move forward. He said in general, attorneys sometimes read the Montana Code, interpret it their own way, and then give advice that might not be correct. 

Susan Lake said the Mission Valley Irrigators United plans to continue to stay involved in irrigation issues. She said the next step for the irrigation districts is up to the irrigators now that they will be able to vote on how the board is formed.

“I hope we can all work together rather than having constant litigation and move forward in a positive way,” she said. 

Lake County Election Administrator Katie Harding said the May Irrigation Election to seat three commissioners will continue as planned. The individual districts are continuing to collect signature verification forms and voter designation forms for the mail-in election. She said people should send the forms to the FJBC address on the envelope as previously planned. “The districts are still functioning so there will still be an election,” she said. 

The Mission and Jocko districts held a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at the former FJBC office in St. Ignatius after press time. The Flathead District plans to hold their meeting at 1 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 12, at the former FJBC office. Both meetings are about Manley’s ruling and possible options. A meeting for all three districts is tentatively planned for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at the former FJBC office.  

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