Fresno City Council opts for study before deciding water referendum

The Fresno BeeJuly 17, 2014 

The Fresno City Council on Thursday voted to do a two-week study on the economic effects of Measure W.

Measure W is a possible referendum on the higher residential and commercial water rates passed last year by the council. The city wants to fund a $410 million upgrade of the water system.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and his allies gathered enough voter signatures to put the rates to a vote of the people -- unless the council repeals the hikes.

The council on Thursday faced several tasks. The first was whether to agree with City Clerk Yvonne Spence that Vagim had the necessary number of signatures. The council said he did.

The second was deciding what to do next. The council could repeal the rates, set a date for the referendum or delay things a bit by conducting the study.

Council Member Lee Brand moved that the study be done. He said everyone should assume that, unless the study uncovered a dramatic new development, the council would return to the dais and vote to put the rates on the Nov. 4 ballot.

However, only the decision to pursue the study was made binding by the 6-1 vote. Council Member Sal Quintero voted no, saying the hikes are too much too soon.

No one emerged from the hearing with smiles. Vagim said he smells a rat in the council's delay. He couldn't pinpoint with proof the nature of that rat. City officials have been angry at Vagim for months. They think he's preying on ratepayers' pocketbook worries to stop City Hall from fixing a broken water system.

Events took an unusual turn early in the hearing.

Council protocol for such matters generally follows a familiar pattern. The council president identifies the issue. Audience members get three minutes each at the public microphone. Council members then hold court to their hearts' content, uninterrupted except when they call a friend to the microphone to buttress a point.

This time, when the process returned to the dais, Brand called Vagim to the microphone. The two men immediately got down to bare rhetorical knuckles, slugging it out for 20 minutes.

There was a barely visible theme to the torrent of words.

Brand was convinced that Vagim's claims during the Measure W petition drive were largely lies and misrepresentations. Brand peppered Vagim with questions, apparently trying to portray the Vagim camp to the media and Internet viewers as mired in deceit.

Vagim gave as good as he got. He occasionally sputtered answers. More often, he turned the tables and fired questions in Brand's direction. Brand sometimes found himself in the odd position of providing answers to an audience member even though he had the floor.

In other action, the council:

 

  • Adopted an ordinance that enables the city to implement a recycled-water program. The city has already decided to build a plant west of town that will treat wastewater to a high degree. The ordinance provides the regulatory framework so the water can be used for things like irrigation of public green space.
 

 

  • Held a moment of silence at the request of Quintero for former Fresno Bee columnist/reporter Eli Setencich, who died Saturday at age 90. Setencich made his mark in the Valley in part by skewering the follies and foibles of politicians and political operatives. He would have relished Thursday's council meeting.
 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com or @GeorgeHostetter on Twitter.

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