Fresno council repeals water rate increases, avoids ballot fight

The Fresno City Council has decided to go back to square one on water rates, sent there by an embarrassing kick from Doug Vagim.

The council on Thursday voted to repeal the same steep rate hikes it had approved with such grand hopes a year ago, deciding it wasn't worth defending them in a grueling referendum campaign.

The series of annual increases approved in August 2013 would have boosted the typical single-family home's monthly water bill from about $24 (in mid-2013) to about $48 in mid-2016.

City officials wanted to fund a $410 million upgrade to the city's water system. Former Fresno County Supervisor Vagim and a handful of allies gathered enough voter signatures to put the issue on the November ballot.

Forlorn council members on Thursday nipped that election in the bud by repealing the rates at the same time they settled legal disputes with Vagim in a way that guarantees a string of public water debates into 2015.

Vagim said an extensive public discussion should have been at the top of City Hall's to-do list last summer. He almost cracked a smile over his victory.

"I'm not dancing, but I'm happy," Vagim said.

The vote was 6-0, with Council Member Paul Caprioglio absent.

The council chamber dais had a mournful air. Council Member Blong Xiong talked about the burden of decision-making. Council Member Oliver Baines said he looked forward to more talk. Council President Steve Brandau promised that the second time would be the charm. Council Member Lee Brand spent 30 minutes explaining why higher rates were justified even after everyone in the council chamber knew he would join the majority in repealing them.

Council Members Sal Quintero and Clint Olivier didn't have long faces. They opposed the rate hikes last year, saying system improvements are wise but not at harmful cost to the poor.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin after the vote said she is pleased by the legal settlement with Vagim.

"The city's goal is to complete the infrastructure projects needed to guarantee our residents a safe and reliable water supply and to ultimately make Fresno a drought-resilient city," Swearengin said. "This agreement recognizes the need for even more citizen involvement on the implementation of that plan and still allows the City to move forward."

The settlement approved in closed session has several key points:

Fresno's future holds more of what the past year has held. There will be more talk about surface water treatment plants, groundwater levels, bonding strategies and global warming. There will be experts, charts, allegations and raised voices. Both sides through clenched teeth say they want to be allies, not enemies.

But for a moment on Thursday, it was more interesting to simply marvel at the mysterious ways of Fresno politics.

Vagim was part of the immense coalition that fought Swearengin's attempt to privatize the city's residential trash service. Privatization went down to defeat in the June 2013 special election.

The council two months later voted to embark on what was called the largest, most expensive construction project in city history. Only Vagim went to the public microphone and told council members they were acting too quickly. He vowed to make them regret their vote.

City officials said Vagim was a lone wolf. They said he couldn't beat them in court. They said he'd never get the signatures.

Then came Thursday. Vagim had another message for the council.

"Onward and forward."