California Supreme Court gives win to Fresno water rate foe Vagim

The Fresno BeeMay 15, 2014 

Doug Vagim

FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO

The California Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from the city of Fresno in the water-rate controversy, giving a powerful boost to one of City Hall's harshest critics.

The city wanted the Supreme Court to review a recent 5th District Court of Appeal ruling that kept alive former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim's effort to put water rates on the ballot.

Vagim said he is pleased with the Supreme Court's stance.

"The city of Fresno has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to prevent her citizens from exercising the rights provided by the constitution of the state of California," Vagim said Thursday. "By the California Supreme Court denying to review this case, the city has exhausted their legal remedies to blockade the voters from progressing to the ballot box."

Vagim has said for months that the city's planned $410 million upgrade to the water system is too ambitious in scale and too onerous for ratepayers.

City officials have said the rates are fair and the upgrade pivotal to Fresno's future. They say the city's responsibility to provide a vital public service -- water -- trumps the people's right to vote on rates.

City Attorney Doug Sloan said that fundamental question remains unanswered.

"The result is disappointing, but asking for a Supreme Court review is always a long shot," Sloan said. "The real question that needs to be answered concerns the legality of this initiative, and we are now seeking that answer from the appellate courts. The citizens of Fresno and public entities throughout the state deserve an answer to that question."

The Supreme Court's decision to stay out of the fight means the issue is finally getting some clarity.

The City Council in August voted 5-2 (Sal Quintero and Clint Olivier voting no) to raise the monthly rates on about 134,000 commercial and residential water customers. The rates would be raised annually. The typical monthly home water bill could (based on consumption) go from $24.49 at the time to $48.34 by mid-2016.

The extra money would pay for an upgrade to the water system. The biggest project would be a $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno. The city's big goal is replenishing an aquifer that is Fresno's reserve during long droughts.

Vagim from the get-go said the council action is suspect. He said the rate hikes' mandated protest hearing was a sham. He said no city should burden the public with huge bond debt without the sanction of voters.

City officials said the protest hearing was fair. They said the scarcity of protest letters (fewer than 500) spoke volumes about public sentiment. They said water security in a near-desert like the central San Joaquin Valley is not subject to the passions of an election.

As if all this weren't complicated enough, City Hall and Vagim then took took everything to court.

Each side sued the other.

Vagim wanted the city to provide a summary of the issues so he could begin circulating petitions. He needs nearly 5,000 signatures of registered voters. The city refused, saying there's no reason to provide a summary for an initiative that's illegal.

A judge told City Hall to deliver the summary. The city did so, but wanted the court to also say the initiative is illegal. That fight appears to have ended with the state Supreme Court's refusal to get involved.

The city-initiated lawsuit -- is Vagim's initiative legal? -- remains active.

The prospect of another fight is just over the horizon. Vagim said he and his allies recently hired a firm to help collect signatures. He said more than 5,300 people have signed petitions. He said the goal is 6,500 signatures, providing a cushion should some prove to be invalid.

Vagim said he hopes to deliver the petitions to the City Clerk's Office next week. If so, the elaborate verification process could unfold at the same time the remaining court case nears a conclusion.

Vagim said he's aiming for the November general election.

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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