Attorney resigns as irrigator counsel
Helena attorney Jon Metropoulos gave a verbal resignation to Flathead Joint Board of Control on Sept. 30 after a tense exchange with irrigation commissioners about finalizing a document that spelled out the board’s stance on key elements of the proposed Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact.
The board finalized the document in Metropoulos’ absence, but the path forward remained unclear as the irrigation districts face many issues he had spearheaded including the water rights negotiation and handful of court cases the board is involved in.
Metropoulos’s propensity for losing his temper with the board in recent weeks was unacceptable, Commissioner Tim Orr said.
“Three times he’s thrown a fit,” Orr said. “It is time for that man to put his big boy pants on. It’s ridiculous, throwing a fit like this in the middle of the meeting, when we’ve got to be able to discuss things.”
Metropoulos was frustrated after commissioners attempted to comb over the language of a 12-page position statement meant to guide a negotiating team to meet with state officials who have agreed to try to include irrigator concerns in the ongoing renegotiation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact.
Metropoulos and Commissioner Jerry Laskody worked on the position statement over the weekend after speaking with a representative from the state attorney general’s office in a board meeting the previous week. The representative stressed to the commissioners that time was of the essence if irrigators want a say in the Compact. The board decided to delay a decision on the position statement until Sept. 30.
“I thought we had a good productive meeting regarding the position statement,” Metropoulos said. “Before I returned to Helena however, I got a panicked call from the attorney general’s office (that was) not happy that this board did not make a decision on the issue on the position statement. The reason is simply timing ... They were really concerned that we don’t understand the urgency of the situation. I think we do.”
Metropoulos said additional correspondence with the governor’s office and attorney general’s office indicated the opportunity to participate in negotiations of the water compact were sincere, but that the board needed to begin having conversations with those offices immediately.
“We need to get started now,” Metropoulos said.
But the draft position statement he presented to the board was incomplete. Large sections were left open for citations of court cases and some commissioners had edits.
As the commissioners and public addressed language and guiding principles they would like to see addressed in the position statement, Metropoulos grew more and more agitated, and said that the board should trust him to finish a final rewrite before he officially tendered his resignation.
Commissioner Boone Cole said after the resignation that he has been a supporter of Metropoulos, but that he would not sign or approve a document when he has not seen a final version.
The commissioners were split on whether or not the resignation spells doom for participating in compact negotiations.
“This closes that window of negotiations,” Commissioner Shane Orien said. “We asked to negotiate, and they’ve offered to negotiate after a year and now what’s going to happen with it we don’t know ... I’m almost embarrassed to sit here sometimes.”
But other commissioners said the board can move forward without the attorney.
“We don’t need Jon to carry forward,” Commissioner Ted Hein said. “We can meet with the (attorney general) ourselves and we can negotiate. Carry on.”
Hein suggested the board send “real irrigators” to negotiate with state officials, instead of only commissioners and legal experts.
Commissioner Kerry Doney agreed that the board could move forward in the negotiating process.
“You’ve got your negotiating team here minus Jon Metropoulos,” Doney said. “Go meet with them and find out what’s going on. What have we got to lose?”
The board approved the position statement in Metropoulos’s absence. It calls for the Flathead Board of Joint Control to have ownership of the bare legal title of water flowing through the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and property owners to have the beneficial use title to the water.
The statement also says that the board wants irrigation water delivered under the compact to be verified as equivalent to historic use.
The Flathead Joint Board of Control also wants to rework the structure of the Unitary Management Ordinance that would create a board of tribal and non-tribal members to handle certain water issues that arise on the Flathead Reservation in the future. This element of the compact is currently not within scope of the renegotiation process, which is narrowly focused on addressing concerns related to water rights of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project.
Commissioners were unsure how they would move forward with contacting the governor’s office and attorney general’s office. That had been Metropoulos’s function previously, and the commissioners were unsure of their relationship with other legal firms and experts the board had hired at Metropoulos’s request.
Even if one of the state’s top environmental law firms, Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman, agreed to continue representing the board, Commissioner Orien was unsure of whether that is a financially viable option. The board budgeted $16,000 for the firm’s hourly wages, and costs have gone $9,000 over budget in the two months the firm has been working for the board.
“We might need to look at other options because it is getting very expensive very fast,” Orien said.
Commissioners gave no indication of how Metropoulos’s resignation would impact upcoming deadlines in a number of court cases the board is involved in. A hearing was scheduled for Monday in Missoula federal district court for a case filed in April by the Flathead Irrigation District. The district sued for turnover of operations of the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Flathead Joint Board of Control. Those proceedings were ongoing as of press time.