Water ruling backs tenants
By DAVE GRAM
The Associated Press | July 16,2012
MONTPELIER — A Barre woman who had to haul jugs of water while on crutches after her landlord’s failure to pay the water bill prompted a shutoff by the city is hailing a federal court decision saying she should have had a chance to appeal.
“I’m just so happy that finally someone has told the city what they are doing is wrong,” said Brenda Brown, who was recovering from foot surgery and using crutches when the water in her rented apartment was shut off for two weeks. “I went through hell without water for all that time and nobody at the city would listen to me.”
Vermont Legal Aid brought the class-action case for Brown and similarly situated tenants and got a mixed ruling from U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss.
Legal Aid lawyer Christopher Curtis called the ruling, issued last week, “a victory for all Vermonters.”
“If you receive public water, you have rights,” he said. “The city was essentially saying renters don’t have any due process rights when it comes to this basic necessity of life.”
He added, “The decision confirms that the public municipal water supply is meant to be available to all Vermonters, regardless of whether you own or rent your home, and that access to the public water supply rises to the level of a protected property interest.”
The judge rejected Legal Aid’s claims that tenants should have been allowed to establish accounts in their own names when a landlord defaults on the water bill.
But the ruling did say the city must give the tenants notice and a chance to appeal.
Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon said he was disappointed the court did not give more explicit instructions for what the new appeal process the decision calls for should be like.
“It said we need to give the parties, the occupants of the property, the right to appeal to the City Council,” Lauzon said. “But it didn’t describe what that process would be.”
He said the decision left open the possibility that the City Council could simply reject such appeals.
The maor said the city told Brown she could resolve the issue by paying the $600 past-due water bill. But he said she lived in one of four apartments in the building and wanted to pay just a quarter of the bill. He said it would be difficult or impossible for the city to work out such deals with tenants when their buildings are on a single water meter.
Reiss suggested such procedures may have to be worked out by the Legislature.
“Plaintiffs’ arguments regarding how and why the city’s refusal to provide water service to tenants should be addressed are thus generally left to the legislative process rather than the courts,” the judge wrote.