Some observations from Missoula condemnation court

We’re nearly halfway through the city of Missoula’s condemnation case against Mountain Water Co. and owner The Carlyle Group.

It’s as interesting as I thought it might be. The witnesses are providing fascinating details, and the lawyers are giving some engaging performances.

A couple themes have emerged in testimony so far. One thing I’m curious about is the relationship between Mayor John Engen and Robert Dove, managing director of infrastructure for Carlyle.

From all accounts to this point, it seems like Dove did intend to sell the water utility to the city of Missoula. Bruce Bender, chief administrative officer, remembered an evening with Dove, I think at Finn and Porter, where Dove put his arm around Engen and said, “Mayor, are you ready to buy a water company?”

So what happened? Did someone above Dove’s head shut it down? Did they figure they could get more from someone else? Then why not counter?

Last March, Dove answered written questions from the Missoulian, and I just took another look at them. They didn’t help me with my new questions, but I’m putting them here and follow ups here* anyway in case you want to take a look. (No answer to my question of whether the Carlyle crew had checked out Charlie B’s.)

More questions? Yes. Have ’em.

Would Carlyle actually benefit if it loses to the city? (And is this the reason they didn’t do well before trial? ‘Cause they didn’t need to?) Since Algonquin proposed to buy Western Water, the three companies, regardless of the outcome of the eminent domain proceeding, then wouldn’t Carlyle be better off getting paid from both the city and Algonquin? Or does Algonquin then take Carlyle to court? Messy.

Alright, other themes from trial. So far, only the city’s witnesses have testified. The picture they’re painting is that the utility is in dire straits and desperate for repairs, but instead of putting money into fixes, the private owners are pocketing it.

Of course, when Mountain’s own engineers take the stand, they may testify that the city cherry-picked photos of rotting pipes. They might say most of the pipes are actually alright, although I’m not sure how they will contest the high leakage rate.

Time is proving to be a focus in this trial, too. Judge Karen Townsend is keeping track of the minutes, and the lawyers are paying close attention. Here’s an order that explains the reason.

Shoot, I want to say more here about the lawyers and, ahem, #condemnationwear, but I’ll do that another time. Calling it a day, unlike all the attorneys and paralegals, who are probably working right now.

Good night.

– Keila Szpaller

P.S. The photo is of Joe Conner, taken by Missoulian photo editor Kurt Wilson.

*Updated with correct doc. Sorry!

Nuts over wrenches

At least some Mountain Water Co. employees aren’t happy with the city of Missoula, that’s for sure.

One thing that rankled some of the staff was a comment at a meeting from Scott Stearns, a lawyer who is representing the city in its eminent domain lawsuit against Mountain Water and owner the Carlyle Group.

Greg Gullickson, a senior accountant at Mountain, explained his irritation:

“Being referred to as a wrench turner, or whatever it is that I do, the arrogance of that tone … I don’t know where that comes from.”

The employees are pleased with Liberty Utilities, though, which has proposed to buy the water utility. This fall, the CEO of Liberty’s parent company was in town.

My colleague Dave Erickson @david_erickson reminded me that CEO Ian Robertson also had referred to wrenches:

“We’re the guys with the wrenches in our hands, and that’s an important distinguishing factor between Carlyle and (utility companies),” Robertson said.

It’s got to be wrenching for the crew at Liberty and parent company Algonquin to watch the condemnation case. Algonquin agreed to buy Mountain as part of a trio of utilities regardless of the outcome of the case, according to Carlyle.

Two for the price of three, anyone? Just kidding. I don’t know if that’s the way it’d shake out. You might feel like a tool if you engineered a deal that went that way, though.

Anyway, let’s get back to the first comment that got people going. Stearns said this in response to the charge his comment was arrogant:

“The folks who turn wrenches are hugely important to Mountain Water, and … the City wants to fund operations – pipes and pumps – not executives in California and (Washington), D.C.”

Here’s his full statement at the meeting, the one that made people go nuts over wrenches:

“If you work at the West Broadway building, at Mountain Water, we want to hire you. If you’re one of the 35 or so wrench turners, or whatever it is you do, we want the water system and we need water system employees to help us out.”

Trial starts in just a few days, and someone is going to get screwed.

All for now.

– Keila Szpaller

*Missoulian file photo of a wrench made with a 3D printer.

*A roundup of recent words on Krakauer’s “Missoula”

1.  This week (actually last week*), the Montana Kaimin calls for transparency from University of Montana officials:

The Montana Kaimin Editorial board asks the University of Montana to release the files regarding the Student Conduct Code hearing of former Montana Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson.

2.  Doubleday plans to release no advanced reading copies. Barbara Theroux at Fact and Fiction said if Jon Krakauer wants a reading, she’ll suggest a community forum.

Theroux also said interest in Krakauer’s book about campus rape is “not on the high level.”

“When a new book is announced by James Lee Burke, we sell books all across the world, and we have lots of, ‘How much is it?’ ‘I need a signed copy,'” she said.

“That’s not what’s going on with this one.”

3. The list of people saying the bestselling author didn’t contact them prior to writing the book is pretty long. It includes UM President Royce Engstrom, Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst and former County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, Mayor John Engen, police chief Mike Brady, and former police chief Mark Muir.

In an email, a Doubleday spokesperson did not confirm the author didn’t reach out to those people.

When I reached him by email, Muir was not pleased about being left out. I quoted his email in this story, but here are his full remarks:

No, Krakauer never reached out to me or anyone I know personally.  Unfortunately, I suspect that much like the DOJ investigative findings, his work will be crafted as mostly one-sided.  The DOJ, as you may know, never interviewed even a single MPD officer or detective about any single specific sex crime reported to the MPD.
If Krakauer has taken the same approach,  then once again the community (and the nation) will only hear one side of these difficult cases that arise in virtually every community in the nation.  If that’s so, this community get short-changed twice over.
DOJ singled out Missoula as the first campus community on the sex assault issue and will then use the outcome here to force the hand with other cities and universities.
While I don’t disagree with the capacity for improvement across the country, I still take issue with the unethical bullying tactics DOJ has used under AG Holder.  Hopefully, the new AG can realign the compass and get onto a calmer, clearer path.

4. An editorial talking about reform at UM. 

5. My story talking with marketers who believe “Missoula” will give Missoula a blemish.

6. The latest in Krakauer’s lawsuit trying to release records.

All for now. I’m off on a road trip for the day with reporter @kathrynhaake and photographer Tom Bauer.

– Keila Szpaller

*Reposted. This post from Feb. 25 was lost in a transfer from one server to another. I’m posting the recovered file here.

Changing up the beats at the Missoulian

My colleague Martin Kidston is now covering City Hall AND the Missoula County Courthouse, as well as development, ’cause he likes to see buildings go up around town.

How about that? Last night*, the council appointed Patrick Weasel Head to replace outgoing Ward 4 Councilwoman Caitlin Copple.

*Follow @martinkidston for #mslacc:
martinkidstonFeb 23, 7:57pm via TweetDeck

“God, geeks, gays, love them all,” Copple says in giving her goodbye; Ward 4 vote now up.

I’m covering the University of Montana now, but I’ll continue to cover the city’s eminent domain case against Mountain Water Co. and the Carlyle Group. The latest is Carlyle again loses in court.

Two true things about condemnation so far? The city is paying a lot, much more than it projected. Carlyle is losing a lot, at least on motions before trial.

The beat change is old news, but we were locked out of the blogs for a while. (The technical people know the reason, and I do not.)

A few people have wondered how the switch came about. Our editor asks us periodically if anyone wants to change things up, and I’ve pretty much loved covering City Hall.

This year is a city election year, and I’m usually curious about who is running again, and who the new candidates are, and which councilors are supporting which newbies. This year, not so much.

I found myself dreading the elections and, even before filing opened, tired of the political narrative in Missoula, maybe still fending off the aftertaste of 2014. From the bird’s eye view, the entitled progressives meet incompetent conservatives, and they’re off to the races.

Obviously, both sides have delivered candidates who work hard and do cool things for Missoula. Council president Marilyn Marler muscled through the sidewalk subsidy, one of the more monstrous pieces of business I’ve seen go through council. She and some other councilors spent a lot of time and sweat in direct response to constituents. Councilman Adam Hertz studied the city’s health insurance, and he presented a valuable analysis of how it compares to the norm. I doubt the council majority will make adjustments based on his work, but the numbers are good to know nonetheless.

Either way, it’s time to read someone else’s take on the narrative, and I’ve nearly tap-danced in the break room to see Martin’s stories. He’s been covering the Mayor’s Downtown Advisory Committee, which I never did, and it’s interesting stuff. Here’s the latest from Sunday on trying to clean up downtown.

I’m likewise tap dancing about my own new world. Scientists! F-bombs! Aquaponics! Blue hair! Sea turtles! 

My first foray into campus life was Love Fest at the University Center, where students wore condoms taped to their jackets, and they handed out flowers and “make out kits.” Toto, we are not in Council Chambers anymore.

Freespeechboard

They’ve got free speech boards posted around campus. (I’ve seen two, so far, and both had F-bombs written in very large letters.) They’ve got professors who are doing cool research in the national parks. (On Martians; I’m not kidding.) A Dining Services staffer who creates a sushi bar every Friday. (Actually, I don’t know if it’s Dining Services. It’s the cafeteria in the UC. I imagine I’ll figure out the name sooner or later.)

Martin’s been more and more interested in development, and covering city and county fits well with that interest. He isn’t into the Love Fest kind of story, and there’s less of it in local government.

So here we are. Sorry, Geoff and whoever else, for the gap in posts.

Enjoy the breath of fresh air in local government reporting, and, I hope, some interesting news from campus. I’ll keep posting here, both local government stories and pieces about UM, and Martin may join me as well.

– Keila Szpaller

*I reposted this entry from Feb. 24 because it was lost in a server move. I don’t remember which of Martin’s tweets I had pasted here, so it might not be the original one. Just letting you know.