Montana Supreme Court decides who owns the Ekalaka Fire Department

Volunteer Fire Department claims it has been independent since before the town was founded

By: - November 27, 2021 9:51 am

A fire truck (Photo courtesy of Pixabay | Public Domain images).

Who owns the Ekalaka Fire Department?

If you said, “Ekalaka,” you’d be right.

But the question wasn’t exactly that straightforward and was settled recently by the Montana State Supreme Court after more than a century worth of disagreement, culminating in the suit decided by the highest court in the Treasure State.

The Ekalaka Volunteer Fire Department claimed that while it was supported by the city, and sometimes even managed by the city, it had always been technically independent. Meanwhile, the city argued that a 1915 agreement brought the volunteer fire department under the city’s management.

While the Supreme Court eventually ruled unanimously that the city owned the fire department, it pointed out that management of the department had been at times lax to non-existent.

The titles to the fire trucks and the fire building were titled to the city itself. Yet the fire department raised money to purchase the equipment. In 2018, after a disagreement with the city leaders, the Ekalaka Volunteer Fire Department established its own corporation.

The fire department also pointed to a contract it had with the city, arguing that if it was part of the city, why would it need a contract? The fire department pointed to separate bank accounts too. The disputes had recently escalated between the town and the fire department, including some firefighter threats that they would not respond to emergencies in the city and another threat to take the keys from the vehicles. The volunteer fire department also pointed to leases it signed with the city for the fire hall.

Yet, in the end, the high court ruled that even though it had given “improper department oversight” – sometimes for years — that documents dating back more than a century and the fact that it provided certain things like workers compensation insurance through the state’s interlocal municipal authority, that the city had ownership and control all along.

“The town’s valid creation of a municipal fire department is clear and uncontested,” the ruling state. “Its oversight of the department has ranged from minimal to unlawful over the years, but this laxity does not somehow dissolve municipal ownership outright.”

Rich Batterman, the attorney who represented the City of Ekalaka, said the leaders are pleased that the division can hopefully be put in the past, and the city can move forward with the issue settled.

“It was a misunderstanding more than anything else,” Batterman said. “Anytime money and equipment are involved, things can get tricky and there are misunderstandings of how things are versus how they want them to be.”

He said the city is moving ahead, taking the court’s advice, saying that Ekalaka city officials will take a more active role in oversight of the department.

“It will be a much more present player,” Batterman said.

Healing the hard feelings and the rifts that a lawsuit like this invites will take some time, but Batterman said that even during the legal battle, the fire department still responded with excellent service.

“It’s going to work on a community basis,” Batterman said. “Will it be a challenge for some individual personalities who will have a hard time accepting the court’s ruling? Probably. But they’ll have to decide where their priorities are — are they in it for the community benefit or some other reason?

“But we have exceptional people providing exceptional service.”

Members of the fire department declined in-person requests for interviews, but their attorney, Kate Dinwiddie said, “Obviously, we are disappointed in the outcome as we viewed the facts of the case very differently. Our client includes dedicated and compassionate volunteers who are more interested in protecting their friends and neighbors in times of need than fighting political battles,” she said. “Though many personal attacks were levied against them, they maintained their honesty and integrity.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.