From today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Moscow's newest City Council members have spent the last several days defending their decision to sell water to a development firm that wants to build just across the state line in Whitman County.
Some residents are so unhappy they're considering a recall.
Dan Carscallen, Wayne Krauss and Walter Steed voted Monday along with Bill Lambert and John Weber to approve a settlement that offers Boise-based Hawkins Companies 45 acre-feet of potable water and 20 acre-feet of irrigation water on an annual basis for use at its proposed 700,000-square-foot retail development just west of Moscow. The Idaho Department of Water Resources must approve the offer before it is official.
The settlement was drafted after two days of mediation last week in Spokane.
Hawkins has about three months to decide whether to purchase wastewater treatment services from Moscow. The settlement also means the city will drop its appeal of water-rights transfers granted to Hawkins, which in turn will relinquish 45 acre-feet of water rights when it has access to Moscow water.
Moscow resident Bill French, a member of the Palouse Water Conservation Network, said he and others have considered calling for a recall of the council members who voted for the settlement.
A recall is worth considering because "five of our six council members, at least in my opinion, betrayed the public trust by conducting this closed-door negotiation and settlement," he said.
Moscow's representatives at the mediation - Steed, Krauss, Mayor Nancy Chaney and Public Works Director Les MacDonald - agreed to keep the proceedings confidential, as demanded by the mediator. The council had to vote on the settlement without disclosing its content to the public.
Krauss said the confidentiality was necessary because the information discussed in mediation couldn't have been used in later litigation if no settlement was reached.
French said Moscow's representatives should have walked out rather than sign the confidentiality agreement.
"I think it was very imprudent for the council to enter negotiations and make a decision before the public had any opportunity to weigh in on what they were thinking," he said.
Dennis Baird, owner of the Wine Company of Moscow, agrees.
"They could have said, 'I'm sorry, we're not going to do that,' " Baird said. "If the mediator didn't like that, then they could have gotten another mediator."
French said Moscow should have continued with its water rights appeal.
"I'm not of the opinion that (the appeal) was destined to fail," he said. "At the very least it might have delayed Hawkins long enough to change the whole situation."
Krauss and Steed said they decided it was best to go ahead with the mediation.
"I went up there to reach a settlement to conclude the Hawkins situation," Steed said.
Krauss said city representatives had two other options: They could have proceeded with costly litigation on the appeal, or dropped the appeal altogether, but "that would have allowed a private entity to pump from the same aquifer we do without any public entity to monitor them on a regular basis."
Chaney said she was not surprised that the mediation session was kept confidential. To disclose things in a legal dispute would be counterproductive to Moscow's interests.
However, Chaney said the council could have proceeded differently after mediation concluded.
She said the council could have declined the settlement and opened discussion to the public. They could have discussed the elements in the settlement without disclosing the agreement itself, and returned to mediation later if the other entities were open to it.
Carscallen, Krauss and Steed said Whitman County was going to help Hawkins move forward one way or another. Moscow had the opportunity to get as much as it could out of the deal.
"We didn't do this to sell out Moscow or to harm or to help Hawkins," Steed said. "We saw an inevitable development that we felt that we could to some degree control, to some degree reduce the amount of water (it used) that we all draw from and to make some money for the city."
The councilmen said the settlement ultimately reduces the net effect on the Grand Ronde aquifer, compared to the water Hawkins would pull if all its water rights were approved and Moscow was not involved.
Chaney said the settlement means "the Hawkins group will end up with more water than was otherwise authorized."
Hawkins had only secured rights to 45 acre-feet, but the settlement guarantees 65 acre-feet.
Chaney said she also dislikes the portion of the settlement in which Moscow agrees not to protest, directly or indirectly, "any permits or governmental approvals" sought by Hawkins for the project. The city can protest "based on public safety or nuisance."
The project was "too ill-defined" for such an agreement, Chaney said.
She also is concerned that the city does not control utility-related issues at Hawkins it would control within city limits. For example, Moscow can't regulate how much grease a restaurant in the development can release into the wastewater system.
Steed said people who shop at the Hawkins development may continue across the border and spend money in Moscow. Shoppers who don't find what they want at Hawkins could come to a similar store in Moscow.
"It's Marketing 101 - you put in a Burger King across the street from a McDonald's," Steed said.
Baird said Hawkins is more likely to hurt Moscow businesses. Because Hawkins will benefit from city infrastructure, which businesses help pay for, the council is forcing business owners to "pay for their own death."
French said he is concerned the agreement doesn't specify what Hawkins will have to pay for water or wastewater treatment.
"We should be making sure we're getting as high a rate as we can from them for providing that service," he said.
Carscallen said city representatives did not set a specific rate because they do not know what Moscow's water rates will be when the development is built.
The settlement states that Moscow "shall be fair and reasonable and consistent with rates and charges set for similarly situated customers of the city."
Steed said this does not mean that Hawkins will pay the same as a business within Moscow city limits.
Krauss said there are no "similarly situated" businesses, so the city will have to create a new rate for businesses across the state line.
The current rate for businesses outside the city limits is twice that of businesses in town, Krauss said. The rate for Hawkins could be as much as three times the in-town rate.
"We will work out a fair rate for them based on who and what they are," Krauss said.
The councilmen said the city also could save money if Hawkins decides to help pay for upgrades to Moscow's wastewater treatment plant in order to speed the availability of treated wastewater for irrigation.
French said people who are unhappy with the settlement should speak out when the Idaho Department of Water Resources evaluates the sale.
"We need to see if there is any way to prevent this agreement from being followed through," he said.
Chaney said the settlement could bring positives.
It could encourage the Washington State Department of Ecology and Idaho Department of Water Resources to manage the Palouse Basin as a common watershed, she said. Any well drilled by Hawkins prior to hooking into Moscow's water could later be used as a test well for the Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee to assess aquifer levels.
"I think we are all coming at this from the perspective of wanting to do what we think will be beneficial to water in the Palouse Basin," she said. "We may not agree on what that is but ... we will make the best out of whatever the outcome is."