Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Vagim, Wayte begin challenge of Fresno’s water rate hike

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.

Doug Vagim

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.

Steve Wayte

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.

Fresno’s government affairs manager leaving for eBay

Katie Stevens, who has been Fresno’s government affairs manager since November 2009, is leaving the city to work for eBay in San Jose. Her last day was Friday.

Stevens, 33, had worked for Mayor Ashley Swearengin when she was director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State. Swearengin took office as mayor in January 2009, and Stevens came to City Hall that November.

Swearengin praised Stevens, calling her “one of the top government affairs managers in California and across the nation. She has been an integral part of the city’s efforts to engage the state and federal governments on a wide range of issues.”

But Stevens also found herself in the middle of a City Council debate early this year on the city’s spending on lobbyists. Some council members questioned the need in tight budget times for lobbyists in Washington D.C., Sacramento and in the mayor’s office.

Stevens earned $65,476 annually for her city job, and spokesman Michael Lukens said the position will stay and be filled after a candidate search.

In her city job, Stevens coordinated efforts between the city’s various departments, the lobbyists, the League of California Cities and the region’s state and federal legislators. She also wrote grant applications.

Stevens will be a manager in eBay’s government relations office.

Fresno County supervisors spar over how to deal with city

Not only are the city of Fresno and the county struggling to get along, but county leaders are now at odds over how to deal with the city.

Incoming Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, the former city councilman, proposed this week the creation of a joint city-county task force to try to settle common issues that the two sides don’t agree on – building a new animal shelter or high-speed rail or regional growth. Pick a topic.

Sound simple? It wasn’t.

The plan garnered just one supporter at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting –- Judy Case — and perhaps more tellingly, the plan gave the new supervisor a preview of the pushback he’s apt to get from his veteran colleagues over the next four years.

Supervisors Phil Larson and Debbie Poochigian said they’d seen task-force ideas like this tried before without success: “We’ve kind of been there and done that,” said Poochigian.

And Supervisor Henry Perea had a plan of his own, which Larson was quick to support: demand the city drop its lawsuit against the county (over development) before any discussion begins. “We’ll start the conversation there,” Perea said.

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Political Notebook: Honored by Swearengin, council in the morning, Stanley turns foe in the evening

Fresno City Council members this morning honored the Rev. Sharon Stanley, giving her a plaque, reading a proclamation and naming the day in her honor.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin was present, stood with Stanley and gave her a hug. A standing ovation followed.

In the evening, however, the hugs and tears will turn to gritty determination for Stanley, who is a leading opponent of Swearengin’s controversial proposal to outsource the city’s residential trash service.

It will likely be Stanley’s final Fresno battle.

For the past 23 years, she’s been in Fresno. The past 18 as executive director of the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministry, which helps refugees — many from Southeast Asia — transition to life in America.

But now she’s headed to Washington, D.C., for a new job.

That was the reason for today’s honors.

Stanley, however, is also a force in local progressive politics, and she isn’t a fan of Swearengin’s proposal, which has several supporters on the council — likely a majority.

Stanley said local residents need more information, more debate and more time before a decision is made.

Political Notebook: Fresno City Council signs off on election — the June election, that is

The Fresno City Council this morning passed a resolution “declaring the results” of the election — not from three weeks ago, but from June.

County elections officials certified the June primary election five months ago.
“We’re moving at the speed of government,” Council President Clint Olivier said in an interview.

A resolution approved by the City Council says that Ashley Swearengin, “having received the majority of votes cast for the office of Mayor, is hereby declared elected to that office.”

It does the same for soon-to-be Council Member Paul Caprioglio in District 4 and incumbent Council Member Lee Brand in District 6.

For those with short memories, a background memo to the council from City Clerk Yvonne Spence says that Swearengin, Brand, and Caprioglio all received more than 50% of the vote.

Oh, and one more thing: the resolution also says “a general municipal election in November is required for Council District 2.”

That, of course, already happened, and Steve Brandau won the race over Pat Di Cicco.

Brandau and Di Cicco faced off because none of the five candidates in District 2 were able to win more than 50% of the vote in June. Di Cicco and Brandau advanced because they were the top two vote getters.

There’s no word on when Brandau’s win will be “declared” official.