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Lawyers Present Closing Arguments In Mountain Water Condemnation Trial

Mountain Water Company, Missoula, MT.
Cheri Trusler
Mountain Water Company

Closing arguments were heard Monday in the condemnation trail for the City of Missoula’s water system.

The city has been trying to buy the privately-owned Mountain Water Company since 2011. Negotiations failed in 2014 and last April the city announced condemnation action against the company under Montana’s eminent domain law.

District Judge Karen Townsend has heard 11 days of testimony in the case.

Monday, attorney Harry Schneider gave the city’s closing argument.

"It’s not so much about private property, it never was," Schneider said. "It’s more about the money."

The city argues that it could run the water system for $6.9 million a year less than a private company. The company is currently owned by the California-based Carlyle Group, which is attempting to sell it to a Canadian company called Algonquin Power and Utilities.

Lawyers for the Carlyle group say that for the city to win, it has to prove that it is “more necessary” for the city to run the water system than a private company. Employees of the water system are against city ownership.

Joe Conner, A lawyer for the Carlyle group says it’s proven it can operate the system better than the city, and therefore it should not be forced to sell it to the city through condemnation.

Conner says the state constitution protects private companies’ rights to possess and protect their property, and that Missoula can only force a sale if it can prove public ownership is “more necessary” than private. Conner says the city failed to do that over 11 days of testimony in the trial.

"Proof did not show the city has a comprehensive plan to operate the system better than Mountain Water," Conner claimed.

The city’s primary argument is that it would operate the water system purely in the public’s interest, and not have to send profits back to corporate shareholders.

District Judge Karen Townsend will now take the parties’ arguments under consideration.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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