Privatization back on track after referendum fails to get enough signatures

By Cheryl Miller
Record Staff Writer
Published Thursday, April 24, 2003

Opponents of a $600 million contract giving a private company operating control of Stockton'swater utilities failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a referendum on the issue, San Joaquin County's registrar of voters said Wednesday.

Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton turned in 9,261 valid names of registered Stocktonvoters but needed 10,540 to qualify the referendum, Registrar Deborah Hench said.

Privatization opponents collected 11,779 signatures. But 909 of those were disqualified because the signatories were not registered to vote, according to the registrar's office. Elections workers tossed out another 616 names because those who signed were registered at a different address
from the one they listed on the petition. An additional 455 names weren't counted because they did not live in city limits.

OMI Inc. and Thames Water, the two companies contracted to run the water, stormwater and sewage-treatment utilities, financed an anti-referendum campaign urging Stockton residents to rescind their petition signatures. That effort appears to have had little effect on the referendum's failure, however.

Of the 4,000 recision requests submitted to elections officials, just 177 were valid.

"It's not over yet," said Sylvia Kothe, chairwoman of Concerned Citizens, a group that included residents against privatization, labor unions and a consumer-advocacy group.

Kothe said Concerned Citizens leaders would wait to receive the official referendum notice from the elections department before deciding what to do. The group might challenge some of the disqualified signatures, she said.

Susan Mays, spokeswoman for OMI, said the results of the referendum count "mean that we can get back to focusing all our attention on the transition" between city and private operations.

The 20-year contract with OMI-Thames established a three-month time line that would give the companies operating control this summer. Assistant City Manager Gary Ingraham declined to say Wednesday whether the referendum issue had slowed the transition, adding only that the city and OMI-Thames have held several planning sessions.

Mays called the referendum supporters' apparent defeat a "milestone" and said that if an election had been called, "we were not going to be in a position to begin."

OMI-Thames still faces two major obstacles in its quest to run the water utilities.

The city still is negotiating with its utilities' labor unions over a severance package. And, several groups have sued the city, claiming that officials have not conducted the appropriate environmental studies of OMI-Thames' plans to upgrade Stockton's wastewater-treatment plant.

"I don't know what impact that would have on the start of the contract," Mays said.

* To reach reporter Cheryl Miller, phone 546-8252 or e-mail cmiller@recordnet.com