Stockton utility contract intact
Judge clarifies ruling

By Cheryl Miller
Record Staff Writer
Published Wednesday, October 29, 2003

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt told city attorneys Tuesday that he never intended an Oct. 17 ruling to invalidate Stockton's $600 million contract with utility operator OMI-Thames.

McNatt's ruling, received by city attorneys early last week, said that the City Council demonstrated "an abuse of discretion" in February by signing the 20-year agreement without first considering the environmental impacts of proposed changes in water, wastewater and stormwater operations.

The judge's ruling concluded: "Let the writ issue as prayed," legal language finding in favor of the three groups that filed the lawsuit, Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton, the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County and the Sierra Club.

In their petition to the court, the groups "prayed" for the judge to order the city to do six things: "vacate and set aside" its approval of the project; complete an environmental review; stop any immediate work on the project; pay court costs; pay the groups' legal fees; and perform "other and such relief" as ordered by the court.

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, McNatt declined to discuss specifics of the case. But he said that, in general, "it is not unusual" for attorneys to hash out "the fine points" of a ruling.

"That's the process we're going through right now," he said. McNatt also confirmed the accuracy of quotes attributed to him in a news release issued by the city late Tuesday.

"The contract was never part of this lawsuit," the release quoted McNatt as saying.

City leaders hailed the judge's comments, made during a scheduling hearing.

McNatt's "clarification of his ruling" ensures the city and OMI-Thames will continue providing waterworks service "without jeopardizing the public health and safety of our citizens," City Manager Mark Lewis said in a prepared statement.

Brian Johnson, an attorney for the groups that sued, declined to characterize McNatt's comments Tuesday.

"Today's appearance was not a substantive" one, Johnson said. "It was to work out a briefing schedule and decide a hearing date."

McNatt set another hearing for Dec. 5. Both sides will then present arguments for how his ruling should be put into action.

"We believe that, given the nature of our legal challenge and the court's ruling, that the appropriate result under (state environmental laws) will be to set aside and vacate the approval of the contract," Johnson said.

Stockton's contract with OMI-Thames remains intact until McNatt issues his final order. Both sides can appeal the ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal.

*Cheryl Miller, phone (209)546-8252 or e-mail cmiller@recordnet.com