Water Initiative Qualifies, Awaits Council Decision For Election Timing

Ernie Head speaks during a press conference on January 23, outside of Davis City Hall flanked by other volunteer signature gatherers.

The Vanguard confirmed on Thursday that the water rate initiative has qualified for the ballot, with the Yolo County Elections office validating more than 1800 of the 2243 signatures turned in by opponents of the water project on January 23, as they seek to roll back the rate hikes.

The question is what happens next and the water initiative backers waited until the last possible moment to turn in the signatures.  In order to make the June election ballot, the council would have to act at Tuesday’s meeting, as February 11 represents the last possible time for the council to act to put a matter on the ballot.

Already the city is facing that deadline on their own June sales tax initiative.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton told the Vanguard on Thursday afternoon that he confirmed that there would be a water initiative item on the now increasingly-crowded February 11 council agenda.  At press time, he was uncertain what that measure would entail and whether it would be informational or an action item.

He indicated that once the staff report is finalized later in the day Friday, staff would have a better idea whether a June water initiative measure is even in the realm of possibility.

Former Davis City Councilmember and Attorney Michael Harrington released a statement on Thursday evening.

Mr. Harrington, who has recently lost a court case challenging the constitutionality of the water rates, said on Thursday, “This Tuesday night, February 11, the City Council will take up the newly qualified initiative.  It will probably be on the late night agenda, unfortunately, but we are glad that it will be heard on such short notice.”

Mr. Harrington would thank the work of city staff and the council for putting the matter on the agenda and also “County Elections Officer Freddie Oakley and her staff for validating and counting the signatures so quickly.”

Mr. Harrington said, “It looks like Davis voters might have the opportunity to vote on the increased water rates.  This voter input has been our main goal since we successfully qualified the fall 2011 referendum, only to see the City Council repeal the rates rather than putting them to a vote.”

“The proponents understand that the City Council has a range of options for acting on the initiative, including sending it to the County for inclusion on the June 2014 local election ballot, or parking it to as late as June 2016,” he said.

“Although some might think it would be problematical to have it on the same ballot as other political and tax measures, we believe that putting it to an immediate city-wide vote is by far the best option for the City,” Mr. Harrington wrote.  “It would give all of us an up or down vote rather than continuing the uncertainty any longer than necessary.”

“An early win for the City would put the rubber stamp of the voters on the rates, and would assist with obtaining the lowest financing costs for the construction bonds.  If the City loses the political vote, it can immediately use the Proposition 218 process to come up with more acceptable rates, based on voter input.  This point-counter-point process is what has made Davis such a great small city to live in, and it gives all of us a personal stake in city governance,” he continued.

“Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers and the local media who got the word out that the petitions were circulating,” Mr. Harrington concluded.  “We are hoping that the City Council will put this on the next ballot, June 2014, and that we can finally get a definitive vote as to the fairness and political acceptability these challenging rates.  Although the hour will be late, we hope that the public will turn out to support putting this initiative on the June 2014 ballot.”

The initiative seeks to roll back water rates established in the spring of 2013 when voters passed Measure I and then failed to reach the signature threshold to successfully stop the water rate hikes from being implemented during the Prop 218 process.

The initiative letter signed by Pam Nieberg and Ernie Head notes, “The people of the City of Davis desire to establish reasonable water rates that accurately represent the cost of providing water services to residents and business. By approving this initiative, voters will repeal the confusing, unfair and onerous CBFR rates that the City Council deliberately kept away from the voters by excluding these rates from the March 5, 2013 ballot with the surface water project.”

The Davis City Council is required to either “adopt the ordinance, without alteration, at the regular meeting at which the certification of the petition is presented,” “immediately order a special election” or “submit the ordinance, without alternation to the voters” or “order a report pursuant to Section 9212 at the regular meeting at which the certification of the petition is presented. When the report is presented to the legislative body, the legislative body shall either adopt the ordinance within 10 days or order an election pursuant to subdivision.”

A June election has been a longshot for some time, but now the item will at least be heard by council.

“I did this because of the unfairness of the water prices that are going to be facing us in the future,” said Ernie Head, who spearheaded and financed the effort during a brief press conference outside of City Hall on January 23 when a group of citizens turned in the petitions.  “It will be at least three times, probably even more [the current cost].  That’s a terrible waste of money.”

“The amount of water, approximately 12 million gallons (per day) will be pumped into Davis, less than one percent of that will be used for drinking,” he added.  “That in my book is real waste of money.”

“My biggest reason why I’m here and I circulated the petitions is there are thousands of water districts throughout this country, yet the city of Davis came up with this ‘ingenious’  consumption based fixed rate pricing scheme that is unique in the entire country and world,” said Danyal Kasapligil.  “With this pricing scheme, even if we all theoretically used the same amount of water, we would all be paying different amounts for the water that we use.”

“How fair is that and why do we need to reinvent the wheel when we can use a water pricing scheme, a tiered price structure that many other municipalities use,” he said.  “Why do have to reinvent the wheel?”

We will know more by Friday afternoon to early evening as to whether the council will even have the capacity to act on this initiative.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    ““I did this because of the unfairness of the water prices that are going to be facing us in the future,” said Ernie Head”

    I feel that this statement of intent is at best incomplete, and ultimately has little to do with “fairness”. My evidence for this is that Mr. Head and others in this group have opposed not only the proposed rate structure, but the project itself and virtually every aspect of the proposed project one by one regardless of merit. From the multiple arguments used against the project to the perpetually obstructionist tactics, to me it seems clear that the object has not been to establish “fairness” but rather to block a project that they simply did not want despite its democratic passage.. Mr. Head cites “waste of money” as one of his concerns and yet shows no concern that the endless legal maneuvering itself is costly to the city and thus to its rate and tax payers.

  2. Tia Will

    Well we see this differently. I do not believe that it is “unfair” to raise rates on residents as an entire group when the goal is to pay for a resource that we have been arguably underpaying for and undervaluing for years. The question of how to raise rates is in my view a separate issue.

    1. David Greenwald

      I’m not arguing whether it’s fair or unfair, only suggesting that their position is fairly consistent from their perspective. I think they see the project and the rates intertwined because you can’t have a project without increased rates. I understand proponents of the project believed that rates would be raised even without a project – a position with a good deal of merit, but from the perspective of the opponents, the rates and the project are inextricably intermixed.

      1. Tia Will

        I would agree had the argument never been put forward that the dual source of water was not needed. This argument was used repetitively as were arguments that the river water was unsafe, full of toxins ( inaccurate information provided by Farmer’s Market opponents).
        So based on their own range of arguments, I do not see the issues of the project to provide dual sources of water and the method of funding ( or rates) as inextricably linked.

        At no point did I hear Mr. Harrington, or Mr. Head, or any of the other principle opponents say :
        “yes, we need an additional source of water, so lets figure out the most reasonable way to accomplish paying for this clearly needed alternative source of water.” If I missed this very reasonable approach made by any of them, I will humbly apologize on this thread. To the best of my knowledge, this was simply not their message, or in my opinion their goal. I remain convinced that the central issue here is not a matter of concern for rate structure fairness, or the economically disadvantaged, but the desire to preferably block or at least delay this project.

  3. Ryan Kelly

    I do better with the new system than the old system. I think it is fairer to low income/low water users. I believe that there was extensive community input. I will be voting against this initiative.

  4. Davis Progressive

    mr. harrington i voted for you in 2000 and 2004, but for the good of this community, i am asking you to let this go. we have much more important and unsettled business to deal with. particularly with the city manager leaving.

  5. Davisite2

    Any Counciil member who blatantly denies the Davis voter the opportunity to vote on this initiative,now fulfilling all the legal requriement to be on the June ballot,will be doing so at their political peril. The initiative may very well fail but to openly flaunt the long and deep populist nature of Davis local politics, IMO, will not be tolerated.

    1. Ryan Kelly

      That sounds like a threat. Not OK with me. I don’t know how other people view this.

      The petitioners should not have waited until the last minute to submit.

  6. Michael Harrington

    DV: thanks for voting for me. As to abandoning the quest for a vote on these rates, I cannot do that. I and my colleagues are fiduciaries for every voter whose signatures appear on that Initiative. We started this, voters signed it, and we will finish it at the election ballot.

    RK: it would not matter if we submitted the signatures weeks ago or now. The June ballot is a busy one, as these general elections always are, and our little initiative could fit right on that ballot with the other items.

    The CC should do the city voters, the water project, and ratepayers a favor, and put this on the June 2014 ballot so we can all get a definitive answer from the voters on these rates.

    1. Ryan Kelly

      Yes, it would matter if you had submitted it earlier. You seem to think that it is not OK for the Council to act hastily, except when it involves your requests.

  7. Michael Harrington

    RK: what’s hasty? They’ve had the petition for months; heck, the City Attorney studied it, and summarized it, and gave it a title — months ago. They knew this was coming, for months, for turn in just about now. It should be on the June 2014 ballot. Gets immediate decision. Minimizes costs of election.

    Oh, but wait: thee CC members who voted for these rates are running for office in June 14. If they are proud of their work product, let them stand up at local fora and tell the voters how good these rates are.

    1. Ryan Kelly

      No, they just received it.

      You should have turned them in earlier and not at the last minute, to follow your own demands that the Council be more deliberate in dealing with things.

  8. Tia Will

    Ok David, now after reading Mr. Harrington’s own words, is there still doubt that this is on his part and that of his associates a primarily political motive being pushed here as opposed to “fairness” or “protecting the disadvantaged” issue ? Not so for the signers who I am sure were convinced that this is in their best interest, but certainly by the sponsors.

  9. Michael Harrington

    Tia: ok I’m guilty. You caught me. I think big changes in utility rates taxes and land use planning should be subjected to citywide votes. oh and add CC choices to that list. Guilty as charged.

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