Sewer pipe

Sewer pipe

Construction workers moved four-inch pipe into place in the Moreland-Thomas area as work on the Snake River School District sewer project progressed last spring.

BLACKFOOT – Seventh District Judge Darren Simpson held a two-hour session on Thursday to hear motions in the Groveland Water and Sewer District (GWSD) vs. City of Blackfoot lawsuit.

The core issue of the suit is whether Blackfoot can require the execution of a petition to annex from the customers of the GWSD as a condition of receiving a new sewer hook-up. GWSD contracts with Blackfoot for waster water treatment services.

The two motions were 1) a request by GWSD for a preliminary injunction against Blackfoot to stop the requirement for a petition for annexation, and 2) a motion from the city to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Simpson decided a month ago to hear both motions at the same time on the basis of judicial economy. This was because the issues involving the motions have some overlap.

In court on Thursday, Simpson confirmed this. “There’s some issues that overlap and we’re going to hear arguments on both. ... Most of my questions will be dealing with the preliminary injunction hearing; but I do have questions on the motion to dismiss as well.”

The structure of the court session was mostly based on Simpson’s questions regarding the briefs that both sides had already filed with the court on both motions. Simpson posed a series of pointed questions regarding previous Idaho case law as it pertained to the motions and the terms and interpretation of the current contract between Blackfoot and GWSD.

POSSIBLE OUTCOMES

Simpson did not make any judgments on Thursday on either motion. He can pursue different outcomes as a result of the hearing.

He can dismiss the suit. This can only happen if he decides that there is insufficient evidence for GWSD to prove its case, if he decides that GWSD has no standing or grounds for their suit or if they have an insufficient likelihood that they could win if the suit goes to trial.

If Simpson decides not to dismiss, he then has to decide whether to grant GWSD a preliminary injunction to prevent Blackfoot from demanding a signed petition for annexation as a condition for its customers to receive a new sewer hook-up.

In addition, he must also decide whether to issue a summary judgment or send the case to trial. A trial usually results when both the facts of the case and their interpretation are in dispute. A summary judgment usually results if all parties agree on the facts but disagree on their interpretation.

MOTION TO DISMISS

Attorney Garrett Sandow represented the city. He made the argument that GWSD had no standing for a suit and therefore it should be dismissed. His basis was that GWSD was not injured by the city’s demand for an annexation petition as a condition for a new hook-up.

The demand was made of new customers and not to GWSD itself. As such, GWSD incurred no injury and no financial damages, Sandow said. It did not prevent GWSD from delivering services or carrying out its normal business. In no way did it affect GWSD, he added.

Essentially, the condition for a signed annexation petition from new sewer hook-ups did no harm to GWSD in any way, Sandow said. If there is no harm done, then GWSD had no grounds for a suit since civil suits are predicated on the condition that one party has done damage to another, he noted.

Attorney Kip Manwaring represented GWSD. He made the argument that Blackfoot had indeed done harm to GWSD by denying hook-ups to its customers. He cited that Blackfoot had recently penalized the Snake River School District, a GWSD customer, for not paying its hook-up fees. The school district has declined to sign a petition for annexation.

Manwaring noted that the school district received a notice from the city “that says that the Snake River School District is in violation of the Blackfoot sewer use ordinance.

“(The notice) also says (that the school district must) provide proof of payment and sign the annexation petition. Then it says to make the (hook-up) payment or the school district will subject to misdemeanor penalties.

“In addition, Snake River could be facing penalties and shut-downs if it didn’t get its hook-up. As the service provider to the school district, GWSD could potentially be hurt by the loss of fees and the inability to provide (sewage treatment) to its customers.”

AGAINST THE PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

Blackfoot made several lines of argument against GWSD’s motion for a preliminary injunction. Besides maintaining the GWSD had not real grounds for damages, Sandow argued that Blackfoot’s contract with GWSD included the city’s ordinances and permit requirements by inclusion (clause 5-C in the 2012 contract). Therefore the city was within its rights to ask for a petition for annexation as a condition of receiving a new sewer hook-up.

This argument was based on the city’s ordinances, which have required this condition since before 2003. Despite the longstanding existence of this city statute, the city only began to demand the petitions this year because of the explosion of growth in the area, Sandow said.

“We haven’t required this in the past but the new growth in the area prompted this,” he stated. “I had Rex Moffat (superintendent of Blackfoot’s waste water treatment plant) look at new hookups since 2011 and there’s only around 20 … so the growth just hasn’t been there (in the past).

“But lately, we’ve got new subdivisions popping up which the Department of Environmental Quality wants to hook into the city (waster water treatment plant). Also, Snake River School District needs to have their services come into (the city’s treatment plant). There’s also approximately 8,000 homes that are within the reach of the (new sewer) line (that hooks up Snake River) that could hook up to the city and also the whole community of Rockford. That’s significant growth and that’s why we’re going go for this.”

Sandow also argued against the preliminary injunction on the grounds that the annexation petitions would save the city future effort and cost when annexation did occur.

“Receiving city sewer services implies consent to annexation under state law,” Sandow explained. “There are two different ways for a city to annex. You have Category A annexation, which is automatic for completely-surrounded residential enclaves or where there was (pre-existing) written consent (like the annexation petitions).

“Under Category B, without that written consent, annexation occurs anyway but the city must expend effort for the significant fact finding required (under Idaho law) and you also have judicial review — so that’s a lot more difficult process for the city. I think it’s important in the big picture to understand that this consent form doesn’t change the ability (to annex). It’s just a matter of how much effort the city must do to put an annexation together.”

Sandow also made the point that asking for a consent to annex form did no harm since annexation was implied under the law automatically. It did not mean that the city was going to annex anywhere “starting tomorrow.” It was just a measure to make annexation faster and smoother when it did happen.

FOR THE PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

Manwaring’s arguments on behalf of GWSD for the preliminary injunction were mostly based on previous case law, the terms of the contract and the damage that Blackfoot did to GWSD by denying its customers hook-ups.

The case law reference by Manwaring involved the 1989 Idaho Supreme Court case of the City of Boise vs. the Bench Sewer District (116 Idaho 25).

Manwaring argued that this case law established that “a municipal ordinance must be confined to the jurisdiction of the governmental entity enacting it … Blackfoot and the GWSD are both governmental entities which has equal jurisdiction in their own territories. Blackfoot can not impose its laws on the (individual) patrons of GWSD because its contract to provide services and hook-ups is with GWSD.”

Manwaring’s point was that providing hook-ups and waste water treatment inside its service territory was its obligation, not Blackfoot’s. To do that, GWSD contracted with Blackfoot for services.

The 2012 contract set out the terms by which Blackfoot provided GWSD treatment and hook-ups. The contract also gave GWSD co-ownership of Blackfoot’s waste water treatment plant along with a proportional responsibility to bear the costs of that plant. GWSD did this through the negotiated fee structure stipulated in the contract.

Because of the jurisdiction that GWSD had within its own service area, it was the governmental entity that determined if a customer would get a hook-up, not Blackfoot. As a consequence, by demanding an annexation petition as a condition of receiving a new hook-up, Blackfoot was violating case law as determined by the rulings of Boise vs. Bench Sewer District, Manwaring said.

He pointed out that clause 5-C of the contract did not specifically include the city’s ordinance requiring an annexation petition — it could only turn down a hook-up or service if the customer’s waste exceed the waste water treatment’s plant’s capacity or ability to treat. Blackfoot disagrees with this interpretation.

ANALYSIS

The city argued that clause 5-C incorporated the city ordinance for the annexation petition. GWSD argued that it did not. This is essentially a disagreement over how the contract terms are currently interpreted. If Simpson does not dismiss the lawsuit, this means that there will be further court actions to determine what the contract terms really mean.

In addition, GWSD argued that requiring the annexation petition of GWSD’s customers violated the district’s territorial jurisdiction to determine the services it provides to its patrons. This is a somewhat subtle distinction, but it is the basis of GWSD’s invocation of the 1989 case law ruling from Boise vs. Bench Sewer District lawsuit

This is because GWSD argues that it is essentially Blackfoot’s only direct customer for treatment services under the contract between the two, and that GWSD’s patrons within its service area are not Blackfoot’s customers.

While Blackfoot’s ordinance may apply to individuals outside of city limits desiring a hook-up to city sewer, GWSD contends that because of the territorial jurisdiction case law, its patrons do not qualify as individual customers of Blackfoot.

GWSD believes that the contract is unambiguous that the petition to annex form is not included even by inference through clause 5-C as a condition for a new hook-up within its own territorial jurisdiction. The gist of the contention is that Blackfoot disagrees with this; and instead believes the terms are ambiguous and subject to conflicting interpretation.