A few weeks ago we wrote in this space that we'd sip a cool glass of water and wait until Missoula finalized its purchase of Mountain Water and agreed to release a detailed accounting of the $7.37-plus million they've—no, we've—paid attorneys to wrest the utility from corporate ownership.
Now the water belongs to the people and our glass is empty.
It's time for the city to produce records related to the acquisition. We're partnering with the Missoulian—gasp!—to make sure they do. This week, both papers filed public records requests for the documents. We've requested all invoices, receipts and contract documents related to the law firms and other companies hired to work on the acquisition. We've also asked for an accounting of travel expenses, city staff time dedicated to the endeavor, and costs associated with rebranding.
City attorney Jim Nugent has maintained that invoices from the three law firms handling the case can't be released while the condemnation is ongoing because the records might tip the city's legal strategy to Mountain Water. Even after the parties signed a final settlement agreement in June, Nugent argued it was still "quite premature" to release the information while several extraneous legal issues and appeal periods are outstanding. He couldn't estimate when those might be resolved.
We aren't pressing the issue to rain on Missoula's parade. The inarguable significance of the acquisition is reason No. 1 we think there's a compelling public interest in the release of detailed records. The city's victory is one for the history books, and it should be instructive to understand exactly how David slew Goliath.
Also recall that in the condemnation's early going, Mayor John Engen estimated the lawsuit would cost $400,000. The near-final bill is almost 20 times that. Learning how that happened is reason No. 2.
So why can't we wait? Simple: There's an election in November. Engen is running for reelection with what's now called Missoula Water as his signature achievement. And rightly so. But voters should know how he managed the acquisition before being asked to cast ballots. During the court proceedings, the city's attorneys argued that Mountain Water racked up exorbitant legal bills. Voters deserve evidence that the city didn't do the same.