Foes of Fresno water-rate hikes post another legal win

The Fresno BeeJanuary 17, 2014 

Former Fresno County supervisor Doug Vagim is leading a move to put the recently approved water-rate hike decision to a vote.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Opponents of Fresno's steep water-rate hikes have won another legal victory.

The 5th District Court of Appeal has agreed with a superior court judge that City Hall must produce the summary of a proposed ballot initiative aimed at letting voters decide the fate of rate increases.

The City Council in December voted to appeal Judge M. Bruce Smith's ruling.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, a leader in the initiative effort, said Friday he is pleased with the appeal court's decision.

"I just want the people to have a broader opportunity to voice their opinion on the water rates," Vagim said.

Based on his understanding of talks between the two sides' lawyers, Vagim said, the summary could be filed with the City Clerk's Office on Tuesday.

At the heart of the conflict is the city's $410 million upgrade to its water system. The key piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant slated for southeast Fresno.

The City Council last year approved annual rate increases that, depending on consumption patterns, could about double a typical monthly residential water bill to about $48 by mid-2016.

The rate increases were subject to a protest vote by the water system's approximately 134,000 customers. Fewer than 500 turned in ballots opposing the hikes.

Vagim says the complex method of registering consumer sentiment is flawed. He and his allies want to gather voter signatures to put the hikes to a binding referendum similar to June's Measure G election on trash privatization.

Vagim can't go after the signatures until his petitions include an impartial summary of the issues. This must come from the City Attorney's Office.

City Attorney Doug Sloan is balking for two reasons. He says the electorate has already spoken loud and clear in last year's protest vote. He also says Fresno's responsibility to provide a safe, reliable water system trumps the public's right to hold a referendum.

Smith on Nov. 25 told the city to produce the summary by Dec. 6. The appeal court has told Smith to immediately set a new date for compliance. The appeal court said City Hall has a lawful duty to provide the summary.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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