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New Billings Heights water board members locked out of meeting, hold it anyway outside

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Posted at 8:21 AM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 10:21:03-04

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses stopped the Billings Heights water district Wednesday afternoon from preventing city and county appointees, along with newly elected and sworn-in board members, from taking their seats.

Those five board members then met Wednesday night after the scheduled meeting was canceled.

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The meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m., but a sign on the door stated it has been temporarily postponed and will be rescheduled.

Recently elected board members Ming Cabrera, Laura Drager and Dennis Cook, along with city appointee Jeff Engel and Yellowstone County appointee Pam Ellis had enough for a quorum and held the meeting outside.

In March, the board came under fire for what critics called exorbitant fees for development and a lack of transparency to the public. This most recent election was the first held by the water board in 60 years.

Then, after the results were tallied, the city of Billings and Yellowstone County filed suit, demanding the water board seat the three newly elected members and the two appointees.

"As a rate payer, as a resident, I'm concerned," said Jennifer Owen, Billings Heights Task Force chair. "I'm concerned that we have been locked out of a building that belongs to the ratepayers, that meetings can't happen normally."

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KTVQ photo

"We had actually predicted that they might pull this," Ellis said. "They pulled it in March, at the last minute they canceled the meeting. But this time we have the quorum. And we knew we could just have the meeting, I actually had the Oasis reserved, because I did predict that this would happen. But we decided that we would go ahead and meet outside because it's a gorgeous day and it means we don't have to pick up and move."

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KTVQ photo

Ellis said the previous board was prepared to not recognize Cabrera, Drager and Cook.

"I don't know who they were planning to appoint but it was clear they were going to appoint three people which left them in power," Ellis said. "And the issue is why are you so desperate to stay in power? We're all residents of the Heights. We're all ratepayers. What is it that makes it so important that you stay in power? So something's wrong, and I don't know what it is."

The board passed some motions, which Ellis says was an important reason for holding the meeting.

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"Critical," Ellis said about the meeting. "One is to is to show recognition for the board for the board that's elected. Two was to get a policy in place for records retention. And three, to make it clear that we are going to follow open meeting laws and we passed that motion."

Ellis said the board will make sure that it has access to financial and public records, and that none of those records will be destroyed.

Moses will hear arguments about his order that allowed the seating of the five board members on May 27 at 10 a.m.

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