On Thursday May 30th, the compact commission held their first meeting since the 2013 legislative session ended. The agenda included their typical items, Chairman’s report, Attorney General report, and a recap of the legislative session. Also on the agenda was a discussion of Governor Bullock’s veto of Senator Jackson’s bill SB265 (to extend the compact commission), and the governor’s request to: “prepare a comprehensive report addressing the questions raise about the (CSKT) compact during the 2013 legislative session.”

This post centers around that discussion.

Bill Schultz, compact commission Program Manager mentioned that the commission was setting a 09/01/13 target date for completion of the report. The initial steps or the “preamble” to the report would be accomplished by:

  • Contacting legislators, local government officials and other decision makers and opinion drivers to solicit their comments and concerns about the compact.
  • Seeking input from the negotiating parties, the Tribe, the United States, the Flathead Joint Board of Control and the State of Montana.
  • Examining legislative hearings and the written records of the 2013 legislative session.

Parties will have about a month to respond, and Chris Tweeten, who attended by the meeting via telephone, commented that the cover letter included for the solicitation of comments will ask that they be tied to specific compact language because many of the criticisms of it this past year seemed to come “out of thin air.” From there the report would be developed to address the concerns raised with an estimated completion date of early September.

Representative Williams asked if the commission would use the report to make a recommendation concerning an endorsement of the compact, and Mr. Tweeten said that the governor was pretty clear in his veto that he is fine with the compact and the commission would take the governor’s position. No surprises there.  We are unclear if the commission will use the report to endorse the compact but that would be redundant because they’ve already voted as a commission to recommend it to the legislature.

Additionally a question was asked about what the Water Policy Interim Committee (WPIC) would do with the report once they received it. The consensus seemed to be that committee would decide what to do with the report, but Mr. Tweeten added that the commission would be in touch with the committee leadership to see what their plans were. It is largely believed that Senator Chas Vincent from Libby will chair that committee.

Representative Salomon interjected that he thought the schedule was aggressive considering the legal issues that needed to be addressed including the Off Reservation Taking, the Irrigator Water Use Agreement, and the Unitary Management Ordinance.

The issue of additional public meetings came up and they were not ruled out, but Mr. Tweeten thought it would be more helpful to make one on one contacts with decision makers, county commissioners, legislators, and opinion drivers (media?) in the communities.

From there, the meeting was opened up for public comment. Several members of the public attended, all were opponents of the compact. Additionally Jon Metropoulos, attorney for the Flathead Joint Board of Control, and EJ Redding, lobbyist for the Western Montana Water Users Association were in attendance.

Comments included a very strong condemnation of the process that took place during the so called ” good faith negotiations” and public involvement during the years the compact was negotiated. The meetings held were portrayed as “sales jobs” rather than providing substantive responses to concerns or any changes to improve the documents. Many believed the commission still had no idea why the public was so vehemently opposed to this compact, and instead continue to be condescending to the public. They continue to portray compact opposition as uninformed and trying to scare people. The commission still holds onto the belief that more “education” will help the public understand why this masterpiece of water compacts is the fair and equitable document they were mandated to provide.

Jon Metropoulos commented on behalf of his client concerning the Irrigator Water Use Agreement. He said something had to change, and reminded the commission that the federal government opened the Flathead Reservation to settlers. If the parties are unwilling recognize the fact that non-tribal residents on the reservation have every right to be there, they are a majority, and do have rights that must be recognized, that an agreement for irrigators would not be possible.

Senator Verdell Jackson explained his own treatment as a participant in the public meeting process and again conveyed his concerns about the compact being essentially a contract that once approved can never be amended. He expressed doubt that anything would change, and that simply trying to better explain the compact without making substantive changes agreeable to the public, legislators would continue to reject it.

Former Representative Derek Skees questioned the fact that the commission is reporting on its own product and did not believe they could do that objectively, or that any improvements would come from it. He also explained that in the past, the commission has used public opinion and comments to strengthen compact talking points and the documents. These same comments were used by the commission to marginalize compact opposition. And as he’s done many times, Mr. Skees commented on the unconstitutional aspects of the compact and brought into question whether the compact violates the Montana Constitution Article II Section 31 concerning ex-post facto laws.

There did not appear to be any compact proponents from the public at the meeting.

It’s obvious that the parties involved with the compact still believe it to be a viable document they will continue to push onto the people of Montana against their will. It is unlikely the compact will receive the scrutiny it deserves, and we expect no substantive revisions. We also anticipate the public will push back against it even harder than they did this past year.

If the summer isn’t warm enough for you, rest assured the ongoing debate concerning the Flathead Water Compact is guaranteed to bring a heated discussion to western Montana over the next few months.

Also important to keep in mind that the possibility of a special session still exists.  We will keep you informed with updates concerning this report and any other water rights or compact related activities as we become aware of them.