A lawyer for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and his wife has offered to settle a lawsuit against the city of Billings "without monetary compensation" for a 2008 wildfire that threatened the couple's subdivision.
In exchange, the Rehbergs want the city to adopt "specific wildland firefighting standards" that may prevent future property loss or damage, according to a letter provided to The Billings Gazette by Jan Rehberg.
After sitting idle for more than a year, the lawsuit has been the subject of a recent flurry of activity, including an official response from the city to the lawsuit that was never formally served and the settlement offer from the Rehbergs.
Denny Rehberg, a Republican, is giving up his seat to challenge incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in the November 2012 election.
On Wednesday, lawyers for both sides met with District Judge Susan Watters for a scheduling conference, normally the first step in the civil legal process to set deadlines and schedule a trial date.
Trial was set for Dec. 3, 2012.
In an interview with The Gazette this week, Jan Rehberg said she is hopeful that the city will consider the offer to end the litigation. It has always been the couple's goal, she said, to prevent future loss or damage and to understand why the 2008 wildfire at the Rehberg Ranch Estates subdivision rekindled two days after it was put out.
"It's not about the money," Jan Rehberg said. "It's about recognizing wildland fires can cause significant damage, and that's why we're interested in making sure it doesn't happen again."
The Rehbergs, represented by Billings attorney Cliff Edwards, filed the lawsuit in July 2010, just before the two-year statute of limitations was to run out. At the time, Edwards said the lawsuit was filed to preserve the Rehbergs' legal claims.
The lawsuit alleges that the Billings Fire Department breached its duty to protect the subdivision during a wildfire that started on July 2, 2008. The fire was quickly contained, but it flared again two days later and spread over a large area, forcing the evacuation of about 40 homes.
The lawsuit sat dormant for months, however, because it was never served on the city. Edwards said the lawsuit was not served because it was hoped that the two sides could resolve the matter outside court. A party filing a civil lawsuit has three years in which to serve the other side.
But negotiations stalled this year, and on Sept. 20 an attorney representing the city, Michele Braukmann, filed an official response in the court case, an unusual legal move she said was intended to "move the litigation forward."
In the interview, Jan Rehberg said she was frustrated with the city's refusal to provide information about the fire before the filing of the lawsuit, such as a final report about the suppression efforts.
"When you talk about transparency in government, it goes to all levels," she said. "They have a lot of responsibility, and in exchange for that they need to be open."
A day before the city's response was filed, Edwards sent Braukmann a seven-page letter that included the Rehbergs' offer to settle the case "without monetary compensation if the city agrees to adopt specific wildland firefighting standards within an agreed time frame, and subject to review and comment by my client and/or the public at large."
If such policies are already in place, the letter states, the Rehbergs "would like to review those policies and have them amended, as necessary."
The letter also set forth the damages the Rehbergs claim the fire caused, and it stated the couple had invested more than $6 million in a portion of the property for future development.
"The investment by my client was and is a benefit to the city, has provided jobs to its citizens, increased the tax base and provided space for the city to adopt a logical, cost-effective growth pattern that does not take farm land out of production," Edwards said in the letter.
Braukmann responded to Edwards in a two-page letter dated Oct. 10, but she did not specifically address the offer to settle the case. She said the city would gather additional documents requested by the Rehbergs.
On Thursday, Braukmann said the city is "pleased" by the offer to settle the case without a demand for money damages, and the city is working to respond to the request for more information about the fire.
Braukmann said much of the information already has been provided, but the city would provide it again in a different format that might be easier to understand.
If the city can show that it has the policies regarding wildland firefighting efforts already in place, Braukmann said, and it can provide other specific information about the Fire Department's response to the Rehberg Ranch blaze, the Rehbergs would "potentially agree to a dismissal" of the lawsuit.