The Fresno City Council on Thursday voted in closed session to appeal a judge's decision on what is turning into the Great Water-Rate War.
The council's action came as no surprise. City Attorney Doug Sloan last week said he would strongly recommend an appeal.
Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith on Nov. 25 said city officials must deliver the summary of a proposed ballot initiative aimed at repealing recent water-rate hikes by 4 p.m. Friday.
Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim is leading efforts to put the hikes to a binding referendum. He said he needs to collect the signatures of nearly 4,900 registered voters, but can't begin the petition drive until the summary is added to signature sheets.
It's the job of the city attorney's office to write the summary, but Sloan has said he won't comply because the initiative is illegal. He has said the city's responsibility to provide a safe, reliable water system trumps the public's right to hold a referendum on rate hikes needed to fund the system
The city wants to embark on a $410 million system upgrade. The project's biggest piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.
The council has approved a series of commercial and residential rate hikes. 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.
Vagim has said water customers did not get a fair chance to voice their opinions.
Sloan on Thursday emerged from the closed session to announce the council's decision to appeal. He said later the vote was 5-2, with Council Members Sal Quintero and Clint Olivier voting no.
Vagim in a brief comment to the council said an appeal means more expense.
The referendum effort "isn't for me," Vagim said. "It's for the people's opportunity to vote."
In other action, the council:
- Approved a one-time fee ($3 each) for the issuance of a parking meter smart card. The city already issues such cards, which allow a customer to pre-purchase a bulk amount of meter time. The one-time fee allows the city to recover its cost of the card.
- Approved creation of a parking meter occupancy permit as part of a one-year pilot program. The cost is $120 per month. The permit would allow the customer to park in metered spaces with no time restrictions.
- Approved the creation of the Downtown Corridor Parking District, an area bounded by Divisadero, H, Ventura and U streets. Residents in the district may buy a permit ($80 per year) allowing them to park on the street in controlled areas.
- Approved a series of amendments to the contract with SMG, the company managing the city-owned Convention Center. The changes would increase City Hall's oversight of center operations. Council Member Lee Brand, who led efforts to revise the contract, said the changes could generate about $665,000 in savings to the general fund over the next 18 months. City officials hope to spend the money on center improvements.
- Postponed for two weeks a hearing on higher water connection fees.
- Heard from officials of Fresno United Hmong Council Inc., who asked City Hall to reduce or waive the cost of police services at the organization's Hmong New Year Celebration. City Manager Bruce Rudd said he empathized with the speakers, but added the city's general fund couldn't handle subsidies for all nonprofits.