Fresno City Hall and Doug Vagim may be fighting again in court -- this time over the former Fresno County supervisor's efforts to derail new water-rate hikes.
The City Council today is slated to debate in closed session whether to sue Vagim and allies who want the increases put to a binding referendum.
Vagim recently filed papers with the City Clerk's Office to begin a petition drive that could put the issue on next June's ballot.
City Hall's position in the likely lawsuit is simple: The hikes are pivotal to providing a core government service, and therefore outside the scope of the initiative process. The city in essence will ask the judge to end Vagim's quest before it begins.
Water, said City Attorney Doug Sloan, "is about as core as it gets."
If the council gives the green light, Sloan said, his office would probably file the suit on Friday.
Vagim said city officials are misreading the law and court precedent. He said the hikes are too steep and their need far from self-evident.
"The public is clamoring to have a voice in this, but the city doesn't want them to have that voice," Vagim said.
The state's open-meeting law permits an elected body to discuss potential litigation in private. A decision to sue would be announced in open session, Sloan said.
At the debate's heart is City Hall's $410 million upgrade to the water system.
City officials say pipe needs replacement and pumps need repair. The project's biggest piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno, an area with groundwater-quality problems.
The new plant, combined with the plant now operating in northeast Fresno, will help the city replenish its aquifer, city officials say.
These and other steps are necessary if Fresno, located in a semi-arid region, is to have a reliable water supply as it continues to grow, city officials say.
The council last month approved a series of commercial and residential rate hikes. For example, the typical monthly home water bill could (depending on consumption) go from $24.49 to $48.34 by mid-2016.
The vote culminated a 45-day review period during which the water system's approximately 134,000 customers -- including residents in county islands -- could cast protest votes. Fewer than 500 did so.
The council felt confident it was acting in accordance with public will and interests.
Vagim for many reasons has fought the rate hikes for months. He said the protest hearing was not enough to truly gauge the people's sentiments.
Vagim said he needs the signatures of about 4,500 registered voters -- 5% of those who voted for governor in 2010 -- to put his question on the ballot next June: Should the increases be repealed?
Vagim said he has nothing against growth, developers or a first-class water system. Rather, he's skeptical about City Hall's justification for such a rapid and expensive overhaul.
Signature-gathering requires petitions, Vagim said. The petitions must include a brief, impartial summary of the issue. The City Attorney's Office must write the summary by Monday.
If City Hall can delay or stop work on the summary, then signature-gatherers must stay home and the initiative never gets going, Vagim said.
City Attorney Sloan said his office has written the summary, but will keep it under wraps until the court speaks.
Vagim said he thinks a lawsuit would be an effort by a government agency with deep pockets to silence grass-roots democracy.
"They want to nip it in the bud," Vagim said.
Said Sloan: "We have an obligation to do this."
Vagim joined forces this year with community activists, union leaders and several council members to fight City Hall's attempt to outsource the city-run residential trash service. A successful petition-drive led to the June Measure G special election. Voters narrowly rejected outsourcing.
The bitter campaign included an unusual lawsuit in which then-City Manager Mark Scott sued Fresno County Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth over the wording of an argument on the sample ballot.
Orth's presence on the lawsuit was a formality. The real targets were Vagim and his anti-outsourcing colleagues. The court hearing in April ended with both sides claiming victory.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.