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Missing 19,000 acres delays Flathead Irrigation District election

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Flathead Irrigation District

The Mission Valley, in a 2018 file photo

POLSON — An election in the Mission Valley has been scuttled by 19,000 missing acres of land.

When the Flathead Irrigation District holds annual elections, landowners get one vote for each irrigable acre. So it was a problem last month when Lake County election officials, preparing the ballots for the May 7 mail-in vote, checked two data sets of the district’s landowners and saw a 19,000-acre gap between them.

The gap was part of the fallout from a complex dispute over water management on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It also threatened to spark new arguments unless the irrigation district took the time to correct the difference.

“It was just such a mess we didn’t think we could” have the election, said Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher, who provides legal advice to the district.

The mess was long in the making. The farmland to the south and west of Flathead Lake is watered by the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, a 1,300-mile network of canals that dates to 1908. It’s currently operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the irrigator fees that fund its operation are assessed by the Mission, Jocko and Flathead Irrigation Districts,

Starting in 1981, the three districts operated jointly under the Flathead Joint Board of Control. It disbanded in 2013, amid disagreements over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact.

It re-formed in 2014, and went on to spend more than $1 million of irrigator fees unsuccessfully litigating against the compact. Another group of irrigators sued, claiming it had illegally re-formed, and in early 2018 Judge James Manley ordered the Joint Board to disband.

Amid this imbroglio, a key administrative task went undone.

Because the irrigation districts’ bylaws give residents one vote for every irrigable acre, keeping up-to-date records of who owned how much land is crucial. Changes in land ownership were tracked by two entities — the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the irrigation districts themselves.

Johanna Clark, the Joint Board’s executive manager and sole employee, would check the two lists against each other to verify their accuracy.

But Clark was terminated in May 2017, after dubious financial transactions were discovered — a matter that Lake County referred to the FBI.

Her absence left no one to update the district’s property changes and splits. The results became clear in early March, when Lake County Elections Administrator Katie Harding prepared the district’s ballots for mailing to irrigators.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ data, she explained, “their irrigated acreage should have been 86,892.9 irrigated acres, and the list they sent me was 68,042.6 acres.”

“Basically I just got ahold of our county attorney and told them that if I created the labels they’d be incorrect,” she remembered.

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At a meeting on Monday, April 1, Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher told about 20 irrigators that “19,000 acres are unaccounted for, and we don't know why.”

Lake County Treasurer Robin Vert Rubel set out color-coded books with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ data. “These books should have been sat down individually,” with the irrigation district records, she said, “and each tax ID should have been updated and all the new ones should have been updated,” she told the group.

This was news to Janette Rosman, one of the commissioners up for re-election. “Everybody in this room that's involved with the district did not know that, did not know the procedure of how to change the acreage,” she said.

“And the reason for that,” she continued, “is because Johanna (Clark) did it, and then Johanna was released, there was no record, there was no knowledge as to what needed to be done, and so that's where the error was coming in.”

Speaking later over the phone, Rosman surmised that the responsibility went beyond the Flathead Joint Board of Control’s former executive manager. “It wasn’t just Johanna Clark,” she said. Lake County's treasurer and elections administrator assumed their roles within the past two years. “I don’t think anybody knew the procedure of what everybody was supposed to be doing.”

Rosman also questioned whether so much land could have gone missing in just 18 months’ worth of sales and splits. “I find it hard to believe that there was 19,000 acres missing.”

But regardless of the extent and the responsible party, running the election with suspect data could cause more trouble for the district, Eschenbacher warned the irrigators. “Theoretically we could just take whatever you give us and run (the election) and then let the lawsuits begin, but we're trying to avoid that,” he said.

The election problems flared up in an already-tense atmosphere. Residents of the Flathead and Mission Valleys remain divided over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact, a sweeping agreement quantifying the tribes’ water rights that was passed by state lawmakers in 2015 and awaits federal and tribal ratification.

Disagreements linger on the ground. In 2016, compact proponents Janette Rosman and David Lake won election to the irrigation district’s five-member board of commissioners.

Lake described the compact as a needed alternative to decades of litigation. His opponent, Bill Hocker, did not reply to requests for comment.

Rosman’s opponent, Gene Lowder, said “I don’t care for it. … I think some changes need to be made. Everyone needs to work together and not fight so damn much over it.”

But Rosman views the negotiated agreement as vital for the district. “We are not where we need to be and we won’t be until the CSKT Compact is settled,” she wrote in an email.

For now, though, the district’s priority is accounting for all its acres.

Chairman Paul Guenzler said they would plan these tasks at a soon-to-be-scheduled meeting. He said the district aims to complete the work by mid-May, which would allow for an election to take place 60 days later.

The commissioners are also hopeful for the passage of Senate Bill 116, sponsored by Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, which would revise the requirements for electors in irrigation district elections, changes that Rosman predicts will streamline the process.

“It’s going to take some time,” Rosman said of the work that lies ahead, “but I do think that it will be resolved.”

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