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Fresno Complies with Court Order, Issues Water Petition Title & Summary

By on January 23, 2014
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Fresno officials have raised water rates, sued taxpayers and frivolously appealed a lower court ruling. Now, you can add ballot bias to the list.

The city of Fresno, which sued a group of taxpayers in an unsuccessful maneuver to stop a water rate referendum, has now complied with a court order to issue a petition title and summary. But, the taxpayers, who’ve battled the city since August, say that the title and summary are biased in favor of the controversial water rate hike.

“Frankly, I don’t believe this Title and Summary filed by the Fresno City Attorney can be considered to represent an impartial statement of the purpose of the proposed measure,” former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim told CalNewsroom.com. “This text belongs in the con-argument side of the ballot’s voter guide for Measure W.”

Vagim points to state law, which requires the city attorney to issue an impartial analysis. The Election Code states, “In providing the ballot title, the city attorney shall give a true and impartial statement of the purpose of the proposed measure in such language that the ballot title shall neither be an argument, nor be likely to create prejudice, for or against the proposed measure.”

Fresno City Attorney: “I’ve not heard any criticism”

The city attorney, who disagrees with Vagim’s complaint, said he’s not aware of any criticism.

“I’ve not heard any criticism,” said Fresno City Attorney Douglas Sloan. “We believe the title is fair, complete, and complies with the law.”

Vagim said his group is currently in the process of sending a letter to the City Attorney asking him to make a change to the biased statement. If the city attorney doesn’t agree to edit the title and summary, Vagim will consider going back to court, where the taxpayers are undefeated.

“We have been through 130 days of agony and frustration that cost lots of time and expense,” Vagim said. “Time is on their side and some are saying, ‘Take what we can get and run with it,’ to start gathering signatures.”

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association: “Most Certainly Slanted”

The state’s leading taxpayer advocacy group says that the language is “most certainly slanted.”

“The language is most certainly slanted,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.”But we have not yet determined whether it crosses the line from the perspective of potential litigation.”

Earlier this month, 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

Then, the city sued the taxpayers in an effort to stall the petition from reaching the 2014 ballot.

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.

Last week, 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 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.

Are the title and summary misleading or biased? Decide for yourself.

Fresno Water Rate Petition Title and Summary

Title: Initiative Measure To Repeal City of Fresno’s Four-Year Water Rate Plan And Related Water Fees

Summary: A “yes” vote on this measure would repeal water rates to be charged over four years that the Fresno City Council adopted on August 15, 2013, and cause the rates to return to what the Council adopted in 2008. The City Council adopted the 2013 water rates to pay for increased costs to provide adequate water that is safe to drink. The increased costs are caused by changes in state and federal drinking water standards, depletion of ground water, costs of maintenance and repairs to old water pipes and other parts of the water system, and the necessity to build a surface water treatment plant. If the current rates are repealed, the City Council could impose higher rates again. However, it would delay the City’s work to repair and improve the water system.

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About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.

6 Comments

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  6. Pingback: Fresno taxpayers object to misleading petition title and summary | CalWatchdog.com

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