Bill Seeks to Clarify Process of Irrigation Elections

Bill Seeks to Clarify Process of Irrigation Elections

Source: Daily Inter Lake
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February 15, 2017 at 11:58 am | By SAM WILSON Daily Inter Lake

Following last year’s messy election for the joint irrigation district served by the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, a Polson legislator is pushing a proposal to clarify Montana’s guidelines for future irrigation elections.

Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, on Wednesday presented House Bill 388 to the House State Administration Committee. Hertz’s bill would add language to current statute to clarify who may vote in irrigation district elections and specify that the irrigation district is responsible for submitting a list of qualified electors to the election boards for counties that administer the elections.

Both of those points were at issue during a court case last year after the Flathead Joint Board of Control, representing irrigators served by the irrigation project in Polson, refused to seat newly elected board members following an election it argued was improperly administered by Lake County’s election office.

A Lake County judge in December 2015 validated the election, ordering the board to recognize the results while acknowledging the confusion in existing statute.

“A lot of the dispute was around the issues in regard to sending out ballots — who was responsible, who did their jobs and who didn’t do their jobs,” Hertz said, arguing it should not be the responsibility of the county elections office to determine who votes in the irrigation elections.

Board elections in irrigation districts are based on the amount of irrigated land, following the one-acre, one-vote rule.

Representatives from the Montana Water Resources Association, the Water Rights Coalition and the Montana Farmers Union testified against the bill. Mike Murphy, the Montana Water Resources Association’s executive director, objected to the bill’s provision addressing how individual districts can opt out of a joint irrigation board.

On joint irrigation boards, or those representing more than one irrigation district, individual districts can opt out simply by providing a 90-day notice to the joint board. Under Hertz’s proposal, that withdrawal would be contingent on the results of a special election called by the joint board, in which a majority of landowners across all districts would be needed for approval.

“We believe that those [districts’] elected officials should have the ability to represent our irrigators and make that determination,” Murphy said, instead of requiring approval from irrigators in other districts.

Johanna Clark, the joint board’s executive manager and one of the leading voices that contested the Lake County election results, said she drafted the bill in response to the dispute.

“A disbandment of a [joint board] will affect all the districts that are involved in that contract,” Clark said. “… If they agree that the decision of their elected officials is sufficient or agreeable for their situation, then that district can move forward with pulling out of that contract.”

In response to a question from the committee, Clark stated that the current joint board had not been involved in drafting the bill, but that Lake County officials had notified the board members.

Hertz told the committee in his closing that he could “see both sides” of the issue, and added, “I’ll leave that in your hands.”

Committee chairman Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, said after the hearing that the committee likely won’t take action on the bill until sometime next week.