Appeals Court Orders Fresno to Issue Ballot Title for Water Rate Petition
A panel of three appellate justices unanimously ordered the city of Fresno to issue a ballot title and summary to a taxpayer group seeking to overturn the city’s controversial new water rate hike. In a Thursday ruling, the 5th District Court of Appeals sided with a lower court ruling that the city has a legal obligation to issue a petition title and summary.
“The trial court found that real party in interest, City of Fresno (City) has a ministerial duty and is required by law and by the California Constitution to issue a title and summary to the proposed measure. As such, the trial court found that City is prohibited from refusing to comply with its ministerial duty,” the appellate court ruling states. “City is required to abide by the trial court’s direction.”
The court demanded that the city comply “forthwith.” (That’s legal speak for “immediately; without delay.”) However, it is unclear whether the city intends to comply with the court ruling. As of Friday afternoon, the city of Fresno had not issued a ballot title and summary, nor had it provided a response to CalNewsroom’s request for comment.
Mayor Swearengin’s Water Rate Hikes
Earlier this week, CalNewsroom.com first reported the story of the bully tactics by the City of Fresno in defense of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s water rate increases. Under Swearengin’s plan, the average water bill would be doubled to fund a $410 million upgrade to the city’s water system.
In September, a group of taxpayers, led by former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, organized a campaign to overturn the rate hikes. But, the taxpayers were denied a title and summary for their petition. Without a title and summary, the group couldn’t collect the necessary signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.
City of Fresno Sues Taxpayers
In late November, a Superior Court sided with taxpayers 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.
The city of Fresno is facing major financial problems after years of fiscal mismanagement and irresponsible spending. It owes $3.4 million per year in annual construction bond payments for a city-owned minor league baseball stadium. 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 is two years in arrears. To solve its cash flow problems, the city had to borrow $14 million from the water department to balance its books.
Fresno Bee: Thumbs Down to Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
Even supporters of the water rate hike have become disgusted with the city’s hardball tactics. Shortly after the first 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” stopped the referendum from reaching the June 2014 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.
Read the 5th District Court of Appeals ruling.