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State supreme court rules in city’s favor in Mountain Water case

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By Martin Kidston

The Montana Supreme Court has found that Missoula District Court made the correct decision last year when it granted the city of Missoula the right to acquire Mountain Water Co. through the process of eminent domain.

The ruling, released Tuesday night, found that District Court Judge Karen Townsend made a factual finding when she ruled that public ownership of Missoula’s drinking water system was “more necessary than private ownership.”

The ruling was supported by evidence submitted to the record, the state’s high court determined.

“The Supreme Court conducted a thorough review of the record and was satisfied that the District Court’s finding that public ownership of the water system was more necessary than private ownership was based upon substantial credible evidence,” the high court found.

Missoula Mayor John Engen called it the correct decision and said he was emboldened by the community’s support throughout the years-long process.

“I am thrilled with the Supreme Court decision,” Engen said Tuesday night. “I appreciate the patience that everyone has had throughout the course of this process, and I am as convinced as I have ever been that the city of Missoula will own a water system in perpetuity on behalf of the public.”

On March 18, 2015, Townsend conducted a three-week bench trial to determine whether the city could prove that its ownership of the water system was more necessary than private ownership.

On June 15, 2015, Townsend concluded that the city had met its burden of proof. As a result, she issued a preliminary order of condemnation.

Later that month, Mountain Water appealed the preliminary order of condemnation to the Montana Supreme Court. In doing so, the defendants challenged Townsend’s orders, including the condemnation ruling and other issues related to pre-trial motions.

Mountain Water also challenged the District Court’s finding that public ownership of the water system was more necessary than private ownership.

“We are thrilled with the Supreme Court’s confirmation of Judge Townsend’s thoughtful ruling,” Engen said. “Tomorrow (Wednesday) we hit the ground running, talking about technicalities of taking possession of a water system, which we intend to do.”

Tuesday’s ruling wasn’t unanimous, with justices James Rice and Laurie McKinnon dissenting.

According to court documents, Rice believes the city violated Mountain Water’s constitutional rights by engaging in “abusive litigation tactics that were not corrected by the District Court.”

Likewise, McKinnon believes the law was applied incorrectly, saying Mountain Water “was already subject to a prior public use and condemnation for the same, identical public use is inconsistent with a determination that the taking is necessary – which is a fundamental requirement of eminent domain law.”

The city plans to discuss the ruling on Wednesday, along with its strategy moving forward.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com