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Measure W Signals Shift in Fresno Politics

Jul 15, 2014

Credit Valley Public Radio

A grassroots campaign to roll back a planned water rate hike that then sparked a lengthy legal battle could soon wind up before Fresno voters.

On Thursday the Fresno City Council will decide whether to put a referendum called Measure W on the November ballot, or to repeal the water rate plan. The move comes after a citizens group announced last week that its petition drive has collected over 5,500 valid signatures—more than enough to qualify for the ballot.

The plan involves incrementally raising monthly water bills in order to pay for an upgrade to the city’s water system.  Mark Standriff is a spokesperson for the city of Fresno.

Standriff: This entire plan was the undertaking of a program to improve our water supply conditions and frankly to replenish the groundwater that’s rapidly diminishing here in the city of Fresno.

The program includes building a facility to treat river water, as well as upgrading pipes and other infrastructure.  The total cost: $410 million.  And to pay for it, Fresno residents’ water bills would on average double over the span of 3 years.

Measure W wants none of it.  Doug Vagim, a former Fresno County Supervisor, is the loudest voice behind the measure and says the rate increase is unfair.

Vagim: Most people feel frustrated, they feel helpless, they didn’t know what to do and where to turn and they had no choice but to do as they were asked to do which was to pay big high rates and stop watering their lawns.

We seem to be entering a time when the public is going to essentially have veto power over a lot of the decisions made at city hall.

Vagim and the proponents of Measure W agree that the city needs a better water system.  But they want the money to come from somewhere else.  

Vagim: Do you pay for it only out of the faucet?  Or do you do what schools do, when you build a new building, or what colleges do when they build campuses?  They don’t go to the rate payer, the schools go to the home owners and property owners in that case, and colleges go to endowments.

Measure W proponents also claim that the city didn’t properly consult with the public before the water rate decision was made.  But Mark Standriff claims there were plenty of mailings and town hall meetings beforehand. The city also claims that under California law a public vote wasn’t legally required.

Standriff: I think it’s important for people to realize that in prop 218, it actually exempts cities and municipalities from having to hold a public vote if it involves water, sewer, or garbage collection.

The two sides spent much of the past year in court fighting over the rate increase and the ability to move forward with the petition. Now with enough signatures gathered to qualify for the ballot, the City Council faces a situation similar to last year’s Measure G.

Tom Holyoke is a political science professor at Fresno State.  He says the two referendums mark a political shift in the City of Fresno.

Holyoke: We seem to be entering a time when the public is going to essentially have veto power over a lot of the decisions made at city hall; I guess kind of a plebiscite.  That’s not always a good thing.

Holyoke says Vagim’s campaign could have ramifications beyond water.

Holyoke: Basically the court has come down and said that this is a right he has, and if is a right then he has free to exercise it.  I’m sure from the city’s point of view it’s a terrible nuisance.  In fact, from the city’s point of view I think this is more than just a man who’s being a nuisance. This is a potentially big problem, I think, for the city.

Of course, citizens get upset about their governments’ decisions all the time—that’s why they can vote in new candidates at election time.  But Holyoke says if voters have direct control over every big decision, they may not always have long-term goals in mind.

Holyoke: The city has determined that the water infrastructure needs to be replaced, that’s almost certainly something that’s got to happen and needs to happen in the near future and that we put ourselves at quite considerable risk if we don’t replace our infrastructure.

On July 17, City Council will decide whether to put Measure W on the November ballot or repeal the water rate hikes altogether.