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Greg Gullickson was out of town when he learned Missoula Mayor John Engen was willing to take Mountain Water Co. to court and force its sale.

"I said, oh my God, and I actually called from Billings to get an appointment to go talk with the mayor," Gullickson said.

At the meeting, the senior accountant tried to dissuade the mayor from taking legal action. Nearly a year ago, though, the city of Missoula took the water utility and its owner, the Carlyle Group, to court.

Since then, most communication from Mountain Water employees has come through the prepared statements of company president John Kappes. Last week, however, Gullickson and three of his coworkers spoke publicly about working at a company the city of Missoula has in its sights.

Mayor Engen has said his quest for public ownership is about securing water for the community and future generations. All but one Missoula City Council member supports the effort, and a solid contingent of the public is also behind it, albeit with questions about cost.

At 1345 W. Broadway, though, the city's approach is angering and perplexing the Mountain Water employees who spoke with the Missoulian.

They take pride in their work – and take offense that city representatives have said the system is in "disrepair" and "under-performing."

"It is hurtful. ... We work hard to pump water and do everything we do to the best of our abilities," said Eric Richards, distribution service worker.

"And frankly, we know it's not true," said Shanna Adams, civil engineer.

They do not understand why the city is criticizing the company, but failing to present its own plan for improvements. 

"They've attacked us on all these different aspects of the system, yet they haven't presented us with a better way of doing this," Adams said.

They are tired of seeing their company's name in headlines, tired of the roller-coaster ride.

"You go to work at a utility for the stability," said Gullickson, who's been at Mountain Water for 17 years.

"There's a lot of unknowns. It has been tough at times to try to figure out which direction life is headed," Richards said.

They're also ready to spend their lives at home playing with their children instead of watching videos of City Council committee meetings.

"We go home after work to relax, right? And play with our kids, and hang out with our family. Not to worry about this stuff," Adams said.

***

Richards was working for L.S. Jensen when he decided to seek a job with Mountain Water Co. He has a wife who works as a nurse, and two children, ages 3 and 5. 

He was looking for a long-term career, and wanted a job that would take his family into account.

Mountain Water Co. fit the bill.

Now, Richards has been at the company for nearly four years, and he worries about whether he'll need to find other job. At home, he and his wife talk about their options.

"Is this where we need to stay? What is going to happen?"

The Missoula native has family in town, and he'd like to stay here. But he doesn't like the idea of working for the city of Missoula since it took his employer to court.

"We do feel a little disrespected with some of the condemnation, the way the city has proceeded in this process," Richards said. "So it is a little tough to look at the future."

Adams too appreciates her job at Mountain Water, and she likes working for a company that has one focused mission. She and her coworkers aim to provide the community with safe and affordable drinking water.

"If we do our job well, we're invisible," Adams said. "They turn on their faucet, and (the water is) clean, and it's safe, and they don't know we're here."

Mountain Water hasn't been invisible for a few years, though.

In 2011, global equity firm the Carlyle Group bought Mountain as part of a package sale. Last spring, the city took Mountain and Carlyle to court to try to force a sale, and a few months later, Carlyle announced it planned to sell Mountain Water to a Canadian company.

Public interest in the legal wrangling and proposed sale has been high.

Lawyers for the city of Missoula periodically have updated council members on the pending court case in public meetings, and some Mountain Water employees have not liked what they've heard.

After the most recent update, employees protested the disclosure of their mediation with the city of Missoula. Staff members alleged the city's representatives broke the law by making their private negotiations public.

"I think we felt really betrayed, stabbed in the back," Adams said. "And it's really hard to go back to the table with someone after you have had that experience."

Employees also objected to the way lawyer Scott Stearns characterized the jobs they do.

"Being referred to as a wrench turner, or whatever it is that I do, the arrogance of that tone ... I don't know where that comes from. I think Scott Stearns lives in Missoula, and we're both Missoulians. It's not the Missoula way, as far as I can see it. ... That is stressful. That's name-calling on an official level," Gullickson said.

In response, Stearns directed the Missoulian to his full statement at the meeting: "If you work at the West Broadway building, at Mountain Water, we want to hire you. If you're one of the 35 or so wrench turners, or whatever it is you do, we want the water system and we need water system employees to help us out."

In a subsequent statement, he also said this: "The folks who turn wrenches are hugely important to Mountain Water, and ... the City wants to fund operations – pipes and pumps – not executives in California and (Washington), D.C."

The city had been trying to negotiate with employees all along, and the information it shared with council members was not bound by confidentiality, Stearns said.

***

The four employees said they would feel differently about a sale if the city had a willing seller. Condemnation, though, has brought stress into their homes and more responsibilities at work.

"We have a water company to run, and we have our jobs in all this turmoil, and that's difficult," Gullickson said.

The legal proceeding has meant employees are collecting information that will be evidence in court, in addition to doing their day jobs. They're pulling statistics, and providing reports. 

"We're having to defend what we do," said Michelle Halley, business administration manager. "We also have to prepare for the hearing that's coming up and all the back and forth with what's happening with motions.

"So that takes a toll."

Adams remembers telling her children, 3 and 5, to go play one night so she and her husband could watch a video of a council meeting. 

She set up her laptop on the kitchen table and watched her coworkers offer testimony to Mayor Engen and council members. Councilors were talking about amending the eminent domain ordinance to authorize the mayor to contract with attorneys.

At one point, the mayor told Mountain Water's Ross Miller he was not addressing the main question before the body. Miller's testimony related to water rights and Rattlesnake Creek.

It was the first time employees had spoken in a public forum since the city of Missoula took the water company to court, Adams said, and she was furious to see her peers cut short.

"I did pause it at times to walk away and try to breathe and cool down," Adams said.

The meeting still stings for Adams. She said employees were told their comments were not relevant, and she was shocked to see attempts to silence them in a public forum.

"We feel like we live in a democratic society. If we don't have a voice, we don't have anything," Adams said.

***

Mountain Water counts 39 employees, and some may not oppose public ownership.

If the city eventually owns the company, though, Richards doesn't believe he'll have a voice at all. He's a Mountain Water customer, but he lives just outside the city limits.

According to Halley, an estimated 1,500 customers in the county are on Mountain Water. And Richards believes they might get looped into the city limits if the administration has its way.

"I don't know that a lot of them understand the fact it could be used for annexation," Richards said.

The staff don't like the employment offers the city of Missoula has made, or the deadlines it has presented them to sign agreements. On the other hand, they laud Liberty Utilities, which has proposed to buy Mountain Water from Carlyle.

"Liberty has come in studying what it is we do, and they've concluded that every single Mountain Water employee is crucial, and they've committed to keeping everybody long term," Adams said. "In fact, they've talked about adding jobs in Missoula."

After one of several meetings with Liberty, Gullickson said a coworker told him she was "over the moon" with the idea a utility company could own Mountain. They want the city of Missoula to give the buyer a chance, too.

"If they could embrace Liberty, it could be a great partnership for Missoula," said Halley, at Mountain Water for 24 years.

However, the employees initially said they had nothing in writing from Liberty or its owner, Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp. They weren't skeptical the added jobs those executives were promising could disappear if a sale is approved.

"We can only base trust on how we're treated," Gullickson said. "And I can tell you from my experience and from what I've seen, the city of Missoula will never be the employer that Liberty would be if they're given the opportunity."

On Friday in court, the employees' lawyer presented the judge with a written "commitment letter" from Liberty to Mountain Water employees. It was dated the same day, Feb. 27, and it did not require employees' signatures.

***

Mountain employees say they've worked well with the city in the past on projects such as a conservation campaign called "Hit the Tap" and a sustainability program called "Green Blocks."

"It's just this mystery as to why there seems to be an antagonistic flair to their feelings toward us because that hasn't been our way of looking at that relationship," Gullickson said.

"Ultimately, we feel like we've had a good relationship with the city, and we feel like we still do," Halley said.

The four who talked with the Missoulian hadn't asked their colleagues in City Hall what it's like to work there.

They do know what it's like to work at Mountain Water, with their peers, in that building, for a company that has treated them well. They want a secure water future, too, and they have a long history of delivering the resource to people in Missoula.

"We know that what we've been doing here for 120 years as a private company is working," Adams said.

Last month, they estimated the total cost of litigation for all parties at more than $5 million so far; in an eminent domain case, the city of Missoula as plaintiff will pay "necessary expenses of litigation," per state statute.

"There are so many needs in this community that are real needs. It's almost sickening to see all the money wasted," Adams said.

The employees don't believe the city of Missoula can afford to purchase the water company and maintain it in the future.

 ***

The city of Missoula had offered to bring an independent analyst to the table to review benefits and ensure its offer to employees was at least equal to the compensation Mountain was paying.

The employees rejected the offer because it did not include everyone.

City officials said their offer did not necessarily extend to the water company's top officers because the city did not know their full compensation.

Regardless, at Mountain Water, the rank and file are backing the executives who stand to gain in a transfer to Liberty. Employees said staff have dipped into their own pockets to help pay for a lawyer to defend them as a group.

"There should not be a taking of property which eliminates anybody's job here. That's just wrong. That's wrong," Halley said.

***

Recently, the city reduced fees for cutting into the streets to encourage high-speed Internet because broadband is a priority, Gullickson said. He said city officials now claim Mountain Water's leaks are a priority, but no one from City Hall ever proposed a way to help the utility.

"What have you done up to this point other than file a condemnation process?" Gullickson said.

The trial is scheduled to begin March 18, 2015.

Gullickson is a fourth-generation Montanan whose great-grandparents homesteaded near Big Sandy in 1912, and private property rights are paramount. He'd feel differently about a negotiated deal.

"Condemnation, to my way of belief, goes against every fiber of my being," Gullickson said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.