UPDATE: Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association comes to the rescue of Amador Water Agency Ratepayers
On Tuesday March 8th, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) filed a lawsuit against the Amador Water Agency (AWA) regarding its refusal to act on the qualified petition titled “Referendum Against A Resolution Passed by The Amador Water Agency Board of Directors” which was circulated in response to water rate increases. The Ratepayer Protection Alliance (RPA) organized Amador voters and successfully collected over 2,500 signatures for the referendum asking the AWA to repeal the rate increase or submit the issue to a vote. Amador County Office of the Registrar verified that the referendum received a sufficient number of signatures. However, AWA decided to ignore the protest, claiming that:
- The referendum protesting rates is beyond the power of the voters;
- The constitution does not reserve the referendum power as a means of repealing a rate increase;
- The petition is fatally confusing because it contains more than just the text of the subject Resolution.
In its papers submitted to the court, HJTA meticulously debunks each of AWA’s excuses for ignoring Amador voters. HJTA states that “The Agency is blatantly refusing to perform its ministerial duties as required by law and is in gross violation of a constitutional right…” The Elections Code requires AWA to either rescind the rate increase or allow Amador voters to decide at the next election.
The lawsuit seeks to place the referendum on the ballot for June 7, 2016. The Amador Superior Court has scheduled a hearing for April 1, 2016. If the Court rules in HJTA’s favor, the Court may at that time issue a writ of mandate ordering the Agency to certify the petition and call the election.
The filed ex parte petition for writ of mandate and the points and authorities documents are available at the links below.
UPDATE: AWA Disenfranchises Amador Voters over Water Rates
On 9/23/2015, Amador County Elections certified that more than enough voters signed the petition against a resolution that would raise water rates by 34% to as much as 137%. Amador Water Agency (AWA) did not certify petition for the ballot. In doing so, AWA disenfranchised over 2,300 voters who recently signed the petition. The voters merely asked to have the decision on the ballot so the people could decide on the rate increase. Ratepayer Protection Alliance (RPA) is consulting with those voters, and has not decided on which options to pursue.
AWA offered three legal arguments for not certifying the petition. RPA is not persuaded by the arguments:
- Without the rate increase, AWA allegedly cannot safely operate
- The Proposition 218 process replaces the referendum procedure
- The petition causes confusion because it is improperly worded
Each of the arguments is easily seen to be false, as described below:
- AWA cites the “Mission Springs Water District versus Verjil” case as prohibiting referendums to limit rates. In fact, Mission Springs is about an initiative, not a referendum. However, the underlying issue is that State law requires that the revenue must be sufficient to safely operate a water system. Mission Springs decided that an initiative cannot set rates so low that the system cannot operate. AWA’s rates are very different because AWA’s own records show that the rate increase challenged by the referendum is greater than the amount needed to operate the system. Furthermore, there was no emergency requiring the Directors to act at this time. AWA has repeatedly stated that unless rates are raised, it will exhaust its reserves within 2 years. Unlike an initiative, the referendum did not set rates, but merely sought to invalidate a hasty rate increase that is not justified by any actual shortfall in revenue.
- Proposition 218 gives certain rights concerning water rate increases to property owners. The referendum process gives voters the right to overrule the officials they elect to represent them when those officials behave irresponsibly. While many voters are property owners, many more are not. Furthermore, Prop 218 gives one vote to each parcel, while the referendum law gives one vote to each elector. The two procedures exist independently side by side.
- AWA cites a particular section of the Elections Code to say that the wording of the petition was confusing. Section 9147(b) says “Each section of the referendum petition shall contain the title and text of the ordinance or the portion of the ordinance which is the subject of the referendum.” That was done. AWA objects to the following sentence in the petition: “The title and text of the 'FY 15-16 Water Rate Update and Water Shortage Financial Strategy' and 'System-Wide Cost of Service and Water Rate Study' are below in their entirety.” However, the sentence is true because those documents were included with the title and text of the subject ordinance. There is no confusion.
RPA believes that AWA deliberately took this action to thwart the rights of the voters of Amador. Now AWA will use those same voter’s funds to defend AWA’s actions if the voters challenge it.
AWA sends petitions to Elections to be counted
At AWA’s 8/27/15 Board meeting, the directors voted to send the referendum petitions to County Elections for counting. According to the Elections Department, Elections plans to start the counting on September 8th and they are required to have the count complete by October 1st.
Once the count is complete and an adequate number of signatures has been verified, the directors will decide whether to rescind the rate increase or whether the referendum will go to vote. If they choose to send the matter to a vote, the directors will need to decide whether to waste ratepayer funds by scheduling an expensive special election or to save ratepayer funds and schedule the vote at the next regular election in June 2016.
Amador residents speak out against AWA rate increase
On 8/19/2015, the Ratepayer Protection Alliance (RPA) delivered over twice the signatures needed for a referendum, requiring the Amador Water Agency (AWA) to rethink their latest water rate increase. This referendum will suspend the 56%-137% rate increase approved on 7/21/15. The AWA board must now choose to rescind their increase or to allow Amador voters to decide whether the increase is fair.
RPA used no paid signature gatherers, instead organizing over 100 local volunteers from Ione to Buckhorn, some with their own teams of workers. With the coordination of local businesses like WalMart, SaveMart, Ione Market, Pokerville Market and Grocery Outlet, RPA was allowed to table petitions, rate information and even offered voter registration or change of address forms. Over 2,600 concerned citizens signed the petition, including business owners, students, professionals, retirees, and several local elected officials.
After the county Elections Department certifies the referendum by verifying the adequate number of signatures, AWA must follow the voters’ request to either eliminate the rate increase altogether or to send the increase to the ballot for Amador voters to decide.
Although not required, the AWA directors could decide to hold a special election at a greatly increased and unnecessary cost to ratepayers. Action could be taken at the 8/27 AWA meeting.
RPA is encouraged to see Amador residents actively protecting their rights. Amador voters still have the right to change or stop elected officials when they feel they are wrong or unfair.