PSC pursuing possible settlement options in Mountain Water case; city skeptical

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The Montana Public Service Commission on Tuesday positioned its staff to consider potential settlement options with Mountain Water Co. and its owner, Liberty Utilities, while advising commissioners on future steps should the parties fail to reach an agreement.

At least one member of the Missoula City Council questioned Tuesday’s action and accused the commission of going back on its word to seek “swift and severe” penalties against the utilities for the unauthorized sale and transfer of Mountain Water.

Eric Sell, communications director for the PSC, said Liberty had expressed interest in possibly settling out of court any fines or legal penalties the commission may impose for the unauthorized sale, which was publicly announced in December.

“Back in January, commissioners voted to levy fines or go to court to levy fines against Liberty and Mountain Water for the unauthorized sale and transfer,” Sell said. “We’ve been approached by Liberty to enter into discussions about a possible settlement.”

Sell could not say what the details of the potential settlement were. Rather, he called Tuesday’s motion a procedural move that would enable the PSC to deal with two possible outcomes – a settlement or a case in District Court.

“The staff is going to enter these settlement discussions with Liberty and Mountain Water,” Sell said. “If they don’t pan out, they will determine how to move forward with litigation against Liberty and Mountain Water.”

Mountain Water said Tuesday that it has not proposed a settlement.

Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg, who has taken the lead on the City Council regarding the Mountain Water case, traveled to Helena to attend the morning work sessions. He came away questioning the PSC’s motivation to investigate a settlement with “the company at the company’s request.”

“I had hoped to hear something about the consultation with the Montana attorney general that was part of the commission’s order, but the public received no information on that matter,” von Lossberg said.

Whatever the PSC negotiates with Liberty and Mountain Water will fall under scrutiny, von Lossberg added.

“Liberty’s action in January enabled it to avoid full discovery, a public hearing and a determination regarding their fitness to serve as a utility in Montana,” he said. “That’s simply unjust and will need to be redressed under any settlement scenario.”