Council: No privatization vote

By Nancy Price

Record Staff Writer

The Stockton, CA, City Council will not voluntarily schedule an election for voters to decide whether private companies should operate the city's water and wastewater divisions, but a citizens' initiative may yet force the council's hand.

In a study session Wednesday morning, only council members Ann Johnston and Richard Nickerson indicated support for continued discussion of a possible public vote. A group of privatization opponents had asked that the council consider amending a request for proposals to require a public referendum if the council votes to privatize the utilities.

Proposals from potential utility operators are due July 1.

With only two weeks scheduled between the unveiling of proposals in October and the opportunity for public comment at a council meeting, residents will have little time to scrutinize and evaluate the proposals, Johnston said.

Rather than just have city staff and consultants review the proposals, the city could consider establishing a stakeholders group of engineers, residents and other interested parties to offer their opinions on the bids, she said.

Stockton residents should get a chance to vote for or against privatization on the November ballot, said Ralph Lee White, a Stockton businessman and former council member.

"You give people a right to vote on what they own," he said. "You should give them that right."

Stockton orthodontist Dale Stocking, a member of a citizens group collecting signatures to force the council to get voter approval on privatization, said November would be too soon to have detailed ballot information.

Stocking said later that the council's decision Wednesday would have little impact on the grass-roots campaign. The group, Concerned Citizens, opposes privatization out of concern that a profit-driven private company will raise water and wastewater rates.

Organizers hope to collect signatures from 10 percent of the city's registered voters by August that, one way or another, will result in Stockton voters having a say on the utility privatization, he said.

Stockton City Clerk Katherine Gong Meissner has said she believes it unlikely that the privatization group will complete a signature-verification process in time to make it on the November ballot. However, the initiative could trigger a special election.

The city's schedule calls for the council to make a decision by November whether to award a privatization contract and start contract talks. But those talks are unlikely to be completed before a special election, and the council then could find itself required to seek citizen approval if the referendum requiring a public vote on privatization passes before the contract is finalized, Stocking said.

But Mayor Gary Podesto said he doubts that a ballot initiative can overturn a signed city contract.

The furor over whether the public should have a role in deciding the privatization issue is premature, Podesto said, because the council may decide against it if the proposals don't yield substantial savings.

The city wants to lower costs in the operation of its water and wastewater utilities because it is facing costly upgrades to discharge facilities that could result in increases in utility bills in lieu of other cost-cutting measures such as privatization, he said.

* To reach reporter Nancy Price, phone 546-8276 or e-mail nprice@recordnet.com