ST. IGNATIUS — With a proposed water rights compact dead in the Montana Legislature, no commissioners on the Flathead Joint Board of Control made a motion Monday concerning a referendum vote of member irrigators that they had previously authorized.
The referendum vote concerns a separate water use agreement between irrigators on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that was considered integral to the proposed compact.
“What would be the point of a vote with the compact dead?” commissioner Boone Cole wondered, and some commissioners indicated they wanted time to consider the three options board attorney Jon Metropoulos laid out.
“I’m sure they’re not the only three options, but they are the three categories I could think of,” Metropoulos said.
One was to postpone a referendum vote of irrigators, the second was to begin the process of having such a vote immediately, and the third was to reverse and rescind the decision to have a vote.
Metropoulos advised the board he saw no reason to begin the process to hold a vote now because with the proposed compact dead in the water, so to speak, in Helena, there was no longer a deadline to get a water use agreement in place.
“If you do a referendum, I think you should try to time it so it’s a statutory referendum,” Metropoulos said, which he said would make it “less susceptible to litigation.”
A statutory referendum submits something already enacted by an elected body to voters.
Officially postponing a referendum vote, Metropoulos told the board, simply means the board is letting irrigators know it intends to hold such a vote in the future.
Reversing and rescinding the referendum vote, obviously, does the opposite. The attorney repeated his belief that such a vote is not legally required, but added this caution:
“Most of us know that for government to be accepted, it needs to be legitimate, and to be legitimate, it must comport not only with the law, but whether it’s what the majority of its constituents want.”
Whichever way the board goes, Metropoulos said, “I’m concerned if it’s not ratified by a referendum vote.”
Metropoulos noted the Montana Supreme Court recently vacated a District Court decision by Judge C.B. McNeil, who had ruled in favor of some irrigators who challenged the joint board’s authority to enter into the water use agreement.
However, the court has not yet issued a written opinion, so while McNeil’s ruling has been overturned, “the details for the reason why remain a little bit unclear,” Metropoulos said.
Meantime, there is an FJBC election on tap.
Four seats on the board are up for election next month, with two of the races contested.
A fifth at-large seat on the 12-person board also will be determined at the first meeting after the mail-in election, where ballots are due back to the Lake County Elections Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7.
Walt Schock, the current commission chairman, is being challenged by Jerome Laskody, a member of the Western Montana Water Users group that sued the board challenging its authority on the water use agreement, for a Mission District seat.
In the Flathead District, Shane Orien and Susan Lake are running for the seat currently held by Paul Hunsucker, who is not seeking re-election.
Unopposed are incumbents Wayne Blevins in the Flathead District, and Cole in the Jocko District.
The FJBC is made up of the three commissioners in the Mission District, the three in the Jocko District and the five from the Flathead District.
The board’s 12th position is for an at-large member appointed by the board. It is currently held by Steve Hughes. The board is taking names of irrigators who would like to be considered for the at-large seat. That person will be selected at the May 13 meeting, when the new board convenes for the first time