Water & Drought

Fresno water-rate critic wins court fight, but city may appeal

Fresno officials must deliver the summary of a proposed ballot initiative aimed at repealing recent water-rate hikes, a judge said Monday.

Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith said the city must have the summary completed by 4 p.m. on Dec. 6.

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 City Attorney Doug Sloan has said he won't comply because the initiative is illegal.

Smith cut through the conflict with his decision.

However, the fight most likely will continue in a new courtroom. Sloan, after Monday's hearing, said he will strongly recommend to the City Council that Smith's decision be appealed.

Vagim said he was pleased with the hearing's outcome, saying it's a win for the people. He said it's unclear whether his best chance for a referendum is in June or in the November 2014 general election.

Sloan also invoked the people's best interests, saying a safe and reliable water supply is among the city's most important responsibilities.

At the debate's heart is City Hall's $410 million upgrade to the water system. The project's biggest piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.

These and other steps are necessary if Fresno, located in a semi-arid region, is to have a secure water supply, city officials say.

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.