An Aug. 4 hearing will be the first big milestone for legal action the Hannibal Board of Public Works (BPW) filed against the City of Hannibal.

An Aug. 4 hearing will be the first big milestone for legal action the Hannibal Board of Public Works (BPW) filed against the City of Hannibal.

The legal action, filed July 17 in the circuit court of Marion County, makes several claims against an ordinance, also known as Proposition 1, that was adopted by the Hannibal City Council in May following a vote of approval by registered Hannibal voters.

The petition lists four counts related to the enforceability of the ordinance formed by Proposition 1, which bans the use of ammonia as a disinfectant in the Hannibal drinking water system. The ordinance mandates that the Board of Public Works discontinue use of ammonia 90 days after the ordinance is adopted by the Hannibal City Council. That date will pass in the middle of August. The Board of Public Works has repeatedly said it will not make the deadline to discontinue ammonia use, and will thus likely fall out of compliance with Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) water quality standards. On May 30, DNR rejected BPW’s request to discontinue ammonia use without an approved alternative.

Here are five things to know about the legal action:

1. What the petition does

The term “lawsuit” isn’t apt to describe this type of legal action, because the Board of Public Works isn’t seeking damages from the City of Hannibal, except court costs. Rather, the petition seeks “declaratory judgments” that would provide guidance and direction from the court on how to implement the ordinance. These types of judgments resolve uncertainty where conflict of interest may arise. In this case, the Board of Public Works alleges the ordinance contradicts both the laws of the State of Missouri and the Hannibal City Charter. The BPW is asking the court to resolve these contradictions.

2. A violation of law?

In its petition, BPW alleges the ordinance contradicts laws of the state of Missouri and the Hannibal City Charter. The petition rightfully points out that Missouri laws and regulations supersede those of Hannibal. The MoDNR, a branch of the Missouri government, sets standards for drinking water systems throughout the state. It approves of any change made to the treatment of water. MoDNR approved the BPW’s use of ammonia to form chloramine — although it doesn’t specifically require use of ammonia to form chloramine as a disinfectant in any drinking water system. BPW argues that by removing ammonia by virtue of the ordinance, the city would be going against the power of a higher authority. The ordinance would also, according to BPW, require the city to contradict the Missouri Safe Water Drinking Act, administered by MoDNR. By shutting off the ammonia feed without an alternative in place, BPW would potentially fall into violation of drinking water standards.

The ordinance was conceived through the power of Hannibal’s City Charter, which allows citizens to vote on an initiative petition after receiving enough signatures to be placed on a ballot. The same section of the city charter that allows this also specifies the proposed ordinance’s “power shall not extend to the budget or capital program.” The BPW argues the drinking water system is a capital program of the city and involves a city budget item. The petition alleged voters did not possess the authority to propose the ordinance in the first place. For those reasons, BPW asks the court to deem the ordinance unenforceable entirely.

3. An alternative argument

Should the court reject the arguments above, the BPW is asking the court to strike sections two and five of the ordinance regarding the timeframe. Sections of the ordinance may be separated, so if the court finds a section to be unlawful, the other sections may still be enforced. Sections two and five require the ordinance be in effect 90 days after its adoption by city council. BPW argues that timeframe is unlawful because it will place the BPW in violation of DNR requirements. The court may strike sections two and five of the ordinance. BPW has suggested the ordinance go into effect when DNR grants approval to operate an alternative disinfection method. That could take years to complete, following studies, approval, construction and alteration at the Hannibal drinking water plant, and tests — and would likely upset voters who approved the ordinance, believing the changes would occur much sooner.

4. The timeframe

It’s unlikely that a decision on either of the requests for a declaratory judgment will be rendered on Aug. 4. BPW has requested a preliminary and permanent injunction and a temporary restraining order to prevent the enforcement of the ordinance until a decision can be reached on the requests for a declaratory judgment. It may be likely that the case sees a new judge.

5. Who is representing each party

James Lemon, who is the city attorney and also has provided legal counsel to the BPW, has stated he has a conflict of interest. Robert Brundage, a Jefferson City attorney, will represent the BPW as he has on other issues. The Hannibal City Council will hear a recommendation to hire Lou Leonatti, the Mexico, Mo. City attorney, as its counsel in the case on Tuesday, Aug. 1.