No matter what happens, Vagim says his legal bills in city water fight are covered -- and not by Poochigian

The Fresno BeeNovember 29, 2013 

A rumor made the rounds this past week that Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian was bankrolling Doug Vagim’s battle to put the city of Fresno’s recent water-rate hikes to a vote.

It can’t be a cheap because Vagim — a former Fresno County supervisor himself — has the legal services of Charles H. Bell Jr., an election-law expert and general counsel to the California Republican Party.

“I can you who is paying for him now,” Vagim quipped when asked who is footing the legal bill. “The city of Fresno.”

Vagim and the city have been battling in Fresno County Superior Court, and earlier this week Judge M. Bruce Smith said the city must have the summary for an initiative on repealing the water-rate hikes completed by 4 p.m. on Dec. 6.

Smith, Vagim said, left in the part of his legal action that has the city paying for his legal fees.

Still, Vagim said he’d never have hired Bell or initiated the fight if he didn’t feel he had the financial backing.

And that backing, he said, didn’t come from Poochigian. She concurred.

It would likely have come not only from Bell himself, but from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other anti-tax groups in California, Vagim said.

“I’m very very confident that they would have been there,” he said. “I think Chuck Bell, Howard Jarvis (Taxpayers Association) and others agreed we ought to be able to pull this off.”

Vagim said he discussed the situation with Bell and the tax groups and made his argument that they had to take a stand.

Said Vagim: “All I know is that I got the go-ahead.”

The key to the debate is Fresno’s proposed $410 million upgrade to the water system. The project’s biggest piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.

City officials say the upgrades are necessary if Fresno is to have a secure water supply. The council approved a series of commercial and residential rate hikes to pay for the new and improved infrastructure.

As part of that, the city conducted a 45-day review period during which the water system’s approximately 134,000 customers could cast protest votes. Fewer than 500 did so.

Vagim said water customers should be able to vote in an election on the increases. Even with the court victory this week, the battle is far from over, and Vagim said Friday that he’s seeking donations.

Poochigian — who also heard the rumors that she was Vagim’s financial backer — said that while she hasn’t given to this point, “it is certainly a possibility down the road.”

Though a majority of the city’s water customers live within the city, many live in county islands, including areas represented by Poochigian, whose District 5 covers the eastern third of the county.

“Rather than trying to figure out who is responding to their many lawsuits, the city of Fresno should be more focused on not gouging the taxpayers with higher fees and taxes,” she said.

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