Fresno mayor obstructs initiative process to save water rate hike

Fresno residents could see their water rates double, and in the process, all Californians could see their petition powers diminished, if a state appellate court doesn't act quickly on a lawsuit to stop strong-arm tactics by the city of Fresno.

The battle began last August, when the city of Fresno approved a controversial plan pushed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin to raise the city's water rates. The additional revenue would go towards a $410 million upgrade to the city's aging water system.

Under Swearengin's plan, most water users, which include city residents and some unincorporated parts of Fresno County, would see their average monthly bills rise to $48, double what they were last year. That didn't sit well with a group of taxpayers, led by former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, who mobilized a grassroots effort to overturn the rate hikes.

But when the taxpayers tried to circulate a petition to overturn the mayor's plan, the city took the extraordinary step of refusing to grant the petition a title and summary. Without a title and summary, the group couldn't collect the necessary signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.

The move appears to be a direct violation of the California Constitution. Section 3 of Article 13C states that “the initiative power shall not be prohibited or otherwise limited in matters of reducing or repealing any local tax, assessment, fee or charge.”

Pre-emptive strike: City sues taxpayers

Not content to block the initiative, the city went a step further: It sued the taxpayers.

“The City anticipates Initiative Proponents will continue to advocate for the Initiative and its submission to the voters,” its lawsuit states. “By seeking pre-election relief, the City hopes to avoid the cost and expense of submitting an illegal and invalid Initiative to voters.”

Attorneys for Fresno made the remarkable argument that the city's lawsuit would restore the public's trust in government that had been eroded by the courts.

“The voters already fear that everything they vote on ultimately gets invalidated by the courts anyway, and we don't want to feed that fear by letting plainly invalid measures get presented to the voters,” the city's attorney, Michael Colantuono, argued in Fresno County Superior Court.

Taxpayers said that the city was using the legal system to undermine their constitutional rights.

“Our constitutional rights are being infringed on on a daily basis as we're denied the ability to go to the voters to seek their approval,” Chuck Bell, one of the state's preeminent election attorneys, argued on behalf of the taxpayers. “Frankly, we still have the hurdle once a title and summary is issued to retain the requisite signatures of a sufficient number of voters to qualify the measure for the ballot.”

In late November, a Superior Court agreed, and ordered the city attorney to issue the title and summary. Instead of compiling with the court order, the city filed a notice of appeal, which stayed the court’s order, as part of a strategy to run out the clock on the initiative.
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'Core public service not subject to referendum'

Swearengin's office did not respond to an email request for comment on the issue. However, at a press conference last month, the Republican mayor said that the city's interests in managing the water business trumped citizens' rights to petition their government.

“The city of Fresno believes there is ample case law that indicates that a core public service is not subject to a referendum,” she said. “I recognize the short-term pain of raising water rates in the city of Fresno. However, I believe this short-term pain will result in long-term gain for the people of Fresno.”

Much of the city's financial problems stem from years of fiscal mismanagement and irresponsible spending. In a November speech to the Rotary Club of Fresno, City Manager Bruce Rudd acknowledged that “the reality is this organization has always ran close to the edge.”

Among the city's money-pits: a costly city-owned baseball stadium for the town's minor league team, the Fresno Grizzlies. The city owes $3.4 million per year in payments toward the stadium's construction bonds. The bond payments were supposed to be covered by a $1-per-ticket fee collected by the team. However, City Manager Renena Smith told the Fresno Bee in November that the team was two years in arrears.

Which all comes back to the city's water problems. To make up for the cash it wasn't getting from the baseball team, the city had to borrow $14 million from the water department to balance its books.

Fresno Bee turns on mayor over her hardball

Even supporters of the water rate hikes have become disgusted with the city's hardball tactics. Shortly after the first Superior Court ruling, the Fresno Bee editorial board, which backs the water rate increases, chastised Swearengin.

“We support the water-rate increases; they are vital to the city's future,” the paper wrote. “But with these stalling and blocking tactics, Swearengin sends a message that she doesn't trust Fresno voters to do what's best for the city.”

The “stalling and blocking tactics” have already proven effective at stopping the referendum from reaching the June 2014 ballot. If the 5th District Court of Appeals doesn't set aside the stay, taxpayers won’t get a title and summary until May, and the referendum would miss the November ballot. To qualify their proposed initiative for the regularly scheduled November 2014 election, taxpayers would need to submit 4,846 valid signatures to the City Clerk by May 8.

The next scheduled election would occur in 2016, by which time the city is expected to have bond funding contracts in place.


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