Last Friday, December 10, part of the Heights Water District Board filed suit against itself.

Chairman of the board, Dennis Cook and board members Jeff Engel and Brandon Hurst, and a district citizen filed suit in 13th District Court against “County Water District of Billings Heights” with the claim that their meeting on November 29, 2021 “was not in conformance with its operating rules and without providing proper notice”, as stipulated by state law.

The complaint also states that the board failed to provide the public and the citizen- complainant in the suit, Tom Zurbuchen, with an agenda for the meeting which would have “enabled him to participate in the public meeting.”

The summons demands a jury trial and asks the judge to void any actions taken at the November 29 meeting and to require the defendant to pay for costs of the suit and legal fees.

The meeting at issue is a special meeting that was called by the other four board members, a quorum of the board, Ming Cabrera, David Graves, Laura Drager and Pam Ellis, to deal with issues that had crucial deadlines, which they hadn’t been able to accomplish at the regular monthly meeting on November 17, because of a lack of a quorum. They failed to have a quorum partly because board member, Laura Drager, was intimidated into not attending because of an email she received from Zurbuchen, just shortly before the meeting. Another three board members did not attend following failed attempts to cancel the meeting because of disagreements about agenda items.

At the November 29 meeting, Zurbuchen challenged the legality of holding it claiming it was not posted on the district’s website. He read a note from the board president, Dennis Cook, saying that the three absent board members also did not consider it a legal meeting. 

Ellis explained that efforts to post the meetings and documents on the district’s website were thwarted when the staff refused to post it. She said that it was posted elsewhere which was adequate by state law requirements.

At the special meeting a quorum of board members removed Cook and Hurst from their leadership positions and elected in their place Ming Cabrera as President and David Graves as Vice President. The board members in attendance, who voted unanimously to replace the officers, said that they were doing so because those board members had not attended meetings and they were taking actions that did not involve the entire board.

Cook hand delivered a letter to the County Commissioners asking them to remove Ellis, the county’s appointee, from the board. The District’s assistant general manager, Peyton Brookshire, also met with county commissioners, appealing to them to intervene in the board’s disputes. In general the commissioners do not view that they have such authority and have not taken any action.

At the special meeting, the board passed new bylaws and approved a job description for the general manager. The district’s general manager of 19 years, Duke Nieskens, retires on December 20 and the board has advertised for applicants to fill the position.  Assistant manager Peyton Brookshire will be acting manager. To have a new manager hired by the end of the year is among the items of business that the board will likely be delayed in achieving because of lacking a quorum at their regular meeting.

The next meeting of the Heights Water District is on December 15. Their regular monthly meeting date is the third Wednesday of the month.


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