- Associated Press - Friday, July 11, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A set of water quality regulations passed by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission in 2009 will remain on the books after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled them valid Friday, rejecting a legal challenge by farm and business groups.

The lawsuit filed by the Iowa Farm Bureau and other farm and business organizations against the commission attempted to disqualify two of the commissioners’ votes and get the regulations thrown out. Commission members Carrie La Seur and Susan Heathcote were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

La Seur voted for the rules, which require that anyone with new or expanded wastewater discharges into waterways must get permits and certification from the state, despite having moved to Montana months before the December 2009 vote. The lawsuit claimed that since La Seur had moved to Montana and registered to vote there, she was no longer an Iowa elector, which is a requirement to serve on the commission.

But the court determined Friday that Le Seur’s vote was valid.

“The move did not eviscerate her background and qualifications,” the court said in the opinion written by Chief Justice Mark Cady. “It is very difficult to see, in reality, how La Seur was less fit to consider the rule adopted by the commission five months after she left the state when she continued to participate in every commission hearing in person or by telephone.”

Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield, and Bruce Zager disagreed with the four-justice majority on the La Seur portion.

“I would hold that because La Seur was disqualified from voting and the commission was improperly constituted with her participating, the anti-degradation rules are void,” Waterman wrote in the dissenting opinion.

Heathcote worked for the Iowa Environmental Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that focuses on water quality, when she voted for the regulation as a commission member. The lawsuit claims she had a conflict of interest because her employer lobbies for stricter water quality rules.

But the court unanimously agreed that Heathcote’s employment at the council did not warrant disqualification of her vote, and that the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, which led the lawsuit, and the other groups that supported it failed to provide in Heathcote’s case a “clear and convincing evidence of an unalterably closed mind.”

The rules in question were adopted after the Environmental Protection Agency told the state its water quality policies did not comply with the federal requirements. Hearings were held in 2008 and the rules were approved in December 2009 by the commission. They were adopted in February 2010 and the EPA signed off in September 2010.

The next month, the Farm Bureau and several other farm groups, including cattlemen, pork, and poultry producer trade groups and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, filed the lawsuit.

“We respectfully disagree with its conclusion that anyone, regardless of current residency, employment or affiliation, may lead the rulemaking process and decide what regulations apply to Iowans,” the farm bureau said in a statement Friday. “The Iowa Farm Bureau still believes in clean government and that good public policy requires that Iowa residents, not Montana residents, should decide Iowa law.”

A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represented the commission, said the ruling affirms the validity of the state’s rules.

“The ruling also gives clarity on what does and does not disqualify commissioners from fulfilling their appointed duties,” spokesman Geoff Greenwood said.

Le Seur, now an attorney with a law firm in Billings, Montana, said the court’s ruling is an important affirmation of the rules many people worked hard to create.

“I’m glad that chapter is closed and the rules are upheld,” she said.

Heathcote, who still works for the council, said she’s relieved by the decision.

“I think it’s very important that the Supreme Court also affirmed the appropriateness of people who have an environmental advocacy background, that they are not disqualified from serving on the Environmental Protection Commission,” she said.

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