by nathan oster
As annual membership meetings go, it was a doozie, featuring talk of lawsuits, allegations of wrongdoing by public officials and even claims that ballots from a recent election had been improperly counted and reported.
But by the end of the night, the members of the Shell Canal Company had had their say. The results of the first “annual membership meeting” held Feb. 4, 2013 were declared invalid, and as the clock neared 11 p.m. the membership finalized its new board, which now consists of Quinton Noyes, Tom Delaney (incumbent), LeRoy Klitzke (incumbent) and Ray Weese, along with holdover Gary Good.
Voted out of office were Barbara Burbridge and Boyd Van Fleek. While Burbridge simply failed to win re-election, Van Fleek was removed from office prior to the end of his term by a vote of the general membership.
The Shell Canal Company has approximately 130 members. Approximately 70 showed up for Monday’s annual meeting, which was moved from the Greybull Public Library to the Greybull Elks Lodge to accommodate the anticipated large turnout.
Those in attendance on Monday, and the proxies they brough with them from people unable to attend, accounted for approximately 3,500 of the 3,776 acres that are served by the canal between the base of the Big Horn Mountains and the Greybull town limits.
By show of hands, the membership agreed to set aside 32 acres belonging to Adele Snyder due to questions about her proxy — as both Delaney and a neighbor staked their claim to it, citing conversations earlier in the day with Snyder.
Delaney, as president of the board, had called for Monday’s meeting in a Feb. 11 letter to the membership. In that letter, he questioned the qualifications of Tom Goton Sr., who had been elected Feb. 4.
In that election, the initial report of the votes cast suggested that the three seats had gone to Burbridge, Goton and Delaney. A letter that was sent out a few days later, however, after the voters were checked out, suggested that a different threesome had won:
When asked about the status of the ballots from that election, Rebecca Burbridge Dalin reported that they were no longer in her possession, as she had thrown them away.
In Delaney’s letter, he stated that, according to the bylaws, Goton’s election was invalid because he does not own land served by Shell Canal Company or reside in the immediate area surrounding the corporation’s property.
Delaney said he had verified it with the courthouse, and that Robert’s Rules of Order clearly state that if a person is elected does not meet the eligibility requirement, the election is be declared void.
The first question for the membership on Monday night was whether it was, in fact, a valid election.
Goton asserted that it was, saying that he had purchased the land in question on Feb. 1 and that all the papers had been signed — he just couldn’t turn them into the title insurance until Feb. 6.
He argued however that that wasn’t even a valid concern, since “our bylaws say that two members of the board don’t even have to have water rights to be on the board. I was duly elected. It was a legal meeting, I had the second highest number of votes, and there were four more below me.”
He suggested that the push to have his election invalidated was “crooked,” adding, “Somebody is on the take from somebody.”
Goton added, “This is just an attempt to keep me off the board. Something is going on. … If this isn’t remedied, you’re all going to lose some of your water rights.”
Van Fleek, the canal company’s largest property owner, cited “Wyoming water law” in argueing that the results of the election were, in fact legal.
Delaney challenged the assertion of impropriety, saying later, “All I’m trying to do is get everything out in the open. It’s not me. The only thing we could go by was courthouse records, and we have a map that shows what (properties) have water rights and what properties do not.”
Before deciding on the validity of the election, the members heard arguments from both sides.
Bill Burbridge said, “Have you ever heard a ‘re-election’ after the first one, on any level of government? All the information I’ve been able to find indicates that when there is an election, if there discrepancies, you should try to work through them and figure out who won. You should not have another election. It’s just not done.”
VanFleek said that in his research, “in 45 years of minutes, I only documented one time when the Shell Canal held an illegal meeting — and it was when a quorum was not present but business was conducted anyway. That didn’t happen this time.
Lee Madsen and Dean Waddell were the most vocal proponents for holding another election, particularly since the original ballots were no longer available to determine who actually the most binding votes.
The membership ultimately sided with them — and strongly, voting by a nearly two to one margin to throw out the results of the Feb. 4 election and to vote again.
First up was Burbridge’s two-year term. Three candidates were nominated: Burbridge, Goton and Noyes. The membership favored Noyes, by a margin of 2266 shares to Burbridge’s 1,300. Goton didn’t receive any votes.
Next up was Delaney’s two-year term. Again three candidates were nominated: Holden Harder, Delaney and Clark Letellier. In the end, it was Delaney who got the nod, with 2,165 votes. Harder ran a strong second, followed by LeTellier.
The final seat, a one-year term, came down to Leroy Klitzke (who had been on the board) and Burbridge. The membership gave the nod to Kliltzke, who received 2,179 votes to Burbridge’s 1,313.
Prior to that last vote, Van Fleet informed Delaney that he intended to “take this to court,” saying that it had been “an illegal meeting” because, among other things, it was called to order by
The second half of the meeting centered on Wyo-Ben, its ownership of 126 acres of adjudicated water rights and the filing of a petition by Van Fleet for the “involuntary abandonment of those rights.”
Dale Nuttall, the Wyo-Ben mine superintendent, told the membership that Wyo-Ben has been using the water to wet down its road. While that isn’t consistent with the “agricultural” or “domestic” purposes spelled out in the water right, Nuttall said Wyo-Ben has been working for the past three years to rectify that.
In fact, he said Wyo-Ben and Shell Canal Company had an agreement in place in which Wyo-Ben would continue to use the water. The canal, in turn, would get the water that it doesn’t use — and last year, Nuttall said Wyo-Ben used only 6 percent of it and turned the rest back to the canal company for its use.
Wyo-Ben also paid $40,000 to the canal company last year, Nuttall said.
Van Fleet’s actions, however, put that in jeopardy. He filed an involuntary abandonment of water rights with the state. Unless he decides to withdraw that petition, the state will issue a ruling, and if it sides with Van Fleet, it would mean a reduction in water for all canal users, plus higher assessments for users who would be responsible for greater shares of the improvements taking place along the canal.
Rick Magstadt, vice president of Wyo-Ben, said Wyo-Ben was working on the transfer of its 126 acres to the canal company in exchange for an enlargement of the canal, which would allow Wyo-Ben to continue using water to wet down its roads.
Magstadt said he was confident that Wyo-Ben and the Shell Canal Company would come to an agreement, but that Van Fleek’s actions jeopardize it. “We’re looking for a solution, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be possible now.”
Van Fleek said he had personal reasons to file the petition, saying that not enough progress had been made by Wyo-Ben. As the largest user of water on the canal, he said he’d be one of the primary recipients of the return flows. He added that he believes Wyo-Ben has been using water illegally for the past 30 years, to the detriment of himself and other canal users.
Van Fleek said he felt it was his “duty” to file the petition, but Bev Hankins challenged that.
“Our bentonite plant is more important than you are, Mr. Van Fleek,” she said. Addressing the membership, she added, “He is a selfish man who wants to take (the water right for) a little bit of land that kept their road wet.
“This is wrong, Mr. Van Fleek, and you are not a good citizen.”
Van Fleek said later that the filing of the petition was as way to “force the issue” with Wyo-Ben, saying that three years had passed already without a resolution. Should Wyo-Ben make “a good faith effort” to rectify the problem, he stated that he would withdraw the petition.
The membership, again by a nearly two to one margin in shares, later voted to remove Van Fleek from the board, citing his actions which went against the wishes of the membership as a whole.
Ray Weese was then appointed to complete the remaining year of Van Fleek’s term.
As the meeting was drawing to a close, both Burbridge and VanFleek spoke in different terms about what lies ahead. Burbridge, who has served on the board for the past 10 years, said she was ready to move on.
“I really didn’t care all that much if it got on again,” she said. “I’ve been on the board for 10 years and feel like I’ve done a lot of work. I’m a little water user. I was on (the board) for everyone else, just trying to get everything reconciled and get everything right.
“It’s clear they don’t want to go down what I think is the right road. They want to go down the road of the good ‘ol boys.”
As for Van Fleek, he said simply, “I’m going to continue to ensure that the laws that govern our system are upheld.”
And how are going to do that, since you’re no longer on the board?
“That has yet to be determined,” he said.