Former Fresno County supervisor-turned government watchdog Doug Vagim is fresh off a major role in defeating Measure G, the city of Fresno's proposal to privatize its residential trash pickup.
Now, Vagim is turning his attention to the city's new water-rate structure, a change that will probably cause homeowners' monthly bills to double. This week, he plans to kick off his effort to put the new rates to a vote that would be part of next June's primary election.
"We're going to do it," Vagim said. "The anger is deep. We'll win."
But the city has a different viewpoint. It doesn't even think the rate increase can be challenged.
The City Attorney's Office authored a legal opinion that concludes "essential public functions" undertaken by cities cannot be challenged through the initiative or referendum process.
"I think water certainly qualifies," City Attorney Doug Sloan said.
City officials say this is not only enshrined in state law, but also has survived a legal challenge.
But if Vagim wants to challenge it, Council Member Lee Brand said, he's free to foot the legal bill to do so.
He also thinks that Vagim would find it tougher to overturn the new water rates than he did dumping the privatization plan — not only in building a coalition, but also in raising the money to mount the political campaign.
It isn't like Measure G, Brand said, where some Republicans who didn't like the city's trash deal with Mid Valley Disposal joined forces with unions and other anti-privatization forces to form a unified coalition.
"He's going to have a tough time getting any traction on the deal," Brand said. "The chemistry isn't here that coalesced under Measure G."
The bid to privatize residential trash service passed the City Council on a series of 4-3 votes last year that drew intense scrutiny.
By comparison, the City Council on a 5-2 vote this month approved a water-rate structure that will help fund a $410 million upgrade to the city's water system. The lead-up to the decision was relatively quiet, and the crowd that showed up for the water-rate hearing was relatively small.
The city will replace old pipes, build new recharge basins and sink new wells, among other things. Also planned is a $227 million surface-water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.
Brand acknowledges the obvious — "Nobody wants their rates raised." But he's studied the issue, and feels Public Utilities Director Patrick Wiemiller has made a solid case that the upgrades are needed. Doing nothing, he said, would take the city back 100 years to an era of boiling water because wells would become contaminated without any city action.
"In a certain respect, (Vagim's challenge) is reckless," Brand said.
Even Council Member Clint Olivier, who opposed the rate increase, isn't on board.
"I don't see Mr. Vagim being successful in this," Olivier said. "But more power to him. If he can pull this off, great. I'm not going to get involved one way or the other."
Both Brand and Olivier said the city followed the proper procedure.
There was a nearly seven-week, legally mandated protest period ahead of the council vote. If a majority of the nearly 134,000 customers — including county island residents — had turned in protest letters, the rate hike would have been killed.
City Clerk Yvonne Spence said her office received 495 such letters.
"I voted no because I believe, and I continue to believe, that the rate increase is more than the people that I represent can bear," Olivier said. "But I don't see the groundswell of opposition that I saw for Measure G."
Vagim knows the road will be harder than on Measure G, but he still feels there is a silent majority in the city — and in the county islands.
Last week, Vagim — a Tower District resident — came before the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, along with some angry county island residents who said they are on city water but can't vote for the City Council members who raised the rates.
"This represents taxation without representation," said Robert Ware, who lives in Old Fig Garden.
Vagim said he wants not only city voters, but also county island residents, to be able to vote in the referendum. He asked County Counsel Kevin Briggs for a legal opinion on that issue.
The next move is Vagim's.
He said he's just waiting for Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to act on the City Council's vote — a signature, veto or no action, which is about the same as a signature.
Swearengin — who declined to comment on Vagim's proposed action — has a deadline of today to make her decision. Assuming she won't veto, Vagim said he'll start his challenge with a formal request to Spence to seek an initiative.
Vagim and Brand disagree about the number of signatures from registered voters needed to put the issue on the ballot.
Vagim said it's 5% of those who voted for governor in 2010. Brand said it is 10% — if it even was approved for the ballot. The number of city residents who cast ballots in that election was 98,000, Vagim said.
Based on that, the number of valid signatures needed at 5% would be 4,900 or 9,800 at 10%. Whatever the number, only the city's registered voters — about 220,000 — would be eligible to sign.
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