Deborah Hilliard

Lawsuit Against Onalaska Water-Sewer District by Recently Elected Commissioner Dismissed

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Moments after winning a spot on the three-person board for the Onalaska Water-Sewer District 5 on Dec. 1 with the help of a coin toss tiebreaker, Deborah Hilliard said she would have to confer with attorneys on how the election’s outcome would affect a lawsuit she and husband Jimmy Hilliard filed in February against the district. 

Three weeks later, the Hilliards are continuing to pursue the lawsuit alleging the district violated the Open Public Meetings Act in August of 2016, and plan to appeal a ruling in Lewis County Superior Court Wednesday that dismissed the case. 

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When asked to explain how a sitting commissioner can actively sue the district she represents on Wednesday, the Hilliards’ attorney Michael Kahrs declined to comment, and advised his clients to do the same. 
In February, Deborah and Jimmy Hilliard filed a lawsuit in Lewis County Superior Court alleging that the water-sewer district commission and staff violated the state OPMA the previous August by holding a special meeting without proper notice given to district residents. 

According to the OPMA, publicly elected boards in Washington must give 24 hours notice of special meetings except in certain cases, such as an emergency. 

According to the state Attorney General’s Office, “emergency” is typically defined by the courts as a natural disaster or similar situation. 

On Wednesday the Hilliards, the water-sewer district and their respective attorneys met in Lewis County Superior Court for a hearing on the defendants’ motion for summary judgement. 

Attorney Quinn Plant, representing the water-sewer district, argued that the district attempted to provide notice, but were short 2 1/2 hours of the required 24. 

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He also argued that the district shouldn’t have been required to give notice at all, saying the meeting in question was called because of an emergency. A pump at the sewer plant wasn’t functioning, putting the district at risk for a sewer-related emergency that he argued met the intent of an emergency as defined in the OPMA. 

Kahrs argued that the situation was not actually an emergency because the meeting was not declared in minutes as an emergency meeting, and because of the length of time it took for the city to make the repairs. 

“This is just about money,” he said. “There’s too much dead time to be explained.” 

Kahrs argued that the meeting was called on short notice to discuss getting a good deal on replacement parts, rather than because of the need to get those parts immediately. 

Lewis County Superior Court Judge James Lawler agreed with Kahrs that the district was concerned about money, but said that shows fiscal responsibility, not that the district violated the OPMA. 

He also said the district should not have to wait until the sewer backs up, but can call an emergency meeting in anticipation of such an event or to prevent damage to public property. 

“It sounds like an emergency to me,” Lawler said.

The district is in the Birchfield complex in Onalaska, which was intended to house a business park, 2,700 residences, a 148-acre golf course and a 120-room hotel, according to previous reporting by The Chronicle.

However, the property has not become the large subdivision originally planned.

Both Deborah and Jimmy Hilliard filed for election this year for positions on the water-sewer board and both races ended in ties. 

On Dec. 1, the Lewis County Canvassing Board held a coin toss tiebreaker for the two positions. 

Deborah Hilliard won the toss for position 1 over current commissioner Dennis Eros. Eros was appointed to fill the position after commissioner Kristine Carter resigned. 

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Jimmy Hilliard lost his coin toss for position 2 to challenger Steven Nikolich.

All four candidates had 11 votes on the general election. 

Virgil Fox, the developer and owner of Birchfield, is the third commissioner. 

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