Local anti-tax advocates Doug Vagim and Steve Wayte on Friday delivered paperwork and a $200 check to the Fresno County Clerk, officially starting a process to put the city’s recent water-rate increase to a vote.
Vagim, a former Fresno County supervisor, and Wayte, a Tea Party activist, say they need to collect around 4,500 signatures of registered voters — which is 5% of those who voted for governor in 2010 — though they hope to collect at least 5,000 signatures if not several thousand more.
They want to go above the minimum, they say, to be safe, and to show city officials there is a groundswell of support for repealing the increase.
City officials, however, say Vagim, Wayte and others supporting the initiative — which would be placed on next June’s primary ballot — are wasting their time.
Doug Sloan, who is Fresno’s city attorney, reiterated what he said in a recent Bee article: essential public functions undertaken by cities cannot be challenged through the initiative or referendum process.
It looks like a court fight in the making, because Vagim disagrees, and thinks he has the law on his side. Furthermore, Vagim says he has a legal team waiting to defend the initiative.
“We’ll win,” Vagim said Friday outside of Fresno’s City Hall before filing the paperwork, “and then we’ll charge (the city) the legal bill.”
But Sloan and other officials who watched Vagim and Wayte’s Friday news conference say the courts have already weighed in on the matter — and found for cities.
Fresno officials also point to the city’s nearly seven-week, legally mandated protest period that was held ahead of the council vote on the rate increases.
If a majority of the nearly 134,000 water customers — including county island residents — had turned in protest letters, the rate hike would have been killed.
Fresno City Clerk Yvonne Spence said her office received 495 such letters.
But Vagim says it was poorly advertised, and the petition had the look of a normal city mailer that was likely thrown away by many residents.
Vagim and Wayte are seeking to challenge a new water-rate structure that was approved by the City Council in August. Diane Smith is a third Fresno resident who signed the petition that was delivered to Spence’s office on Friday.
According to Vagim, the Fresno City Attorney’s Office now has 15 days to respond to the petition, and issue a title and summary of the proposed initiative. That will start a six-month window to gather the signatures to put the initiative on the ballot.
The water-rate increase will help fund a $410 million upgrade to the city’s water system that will replace old pipes, build new recharge basins and sink new wells, as well as build a $227 million surface-water treatment plant in southeast Fresno.