Groups fight secret-bid process

Stockton mayor wants committee to review utility privatization plans

By Cheryl Miller

Record Staff Writer

As Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto considers expanding a committee to evaluate proposals for running the city's water utilities, several groups continue to push the city to release the secret bids immediately.

Podesto last week proposed creating a five-member committee of civic and business leaders to analyze plans submitted July 1 by three private companies seeking to operate Stockton's water and wastewater operations.

Under Podesto's plans, the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council, the League of Women Voters and University of the Pacific's business school each would designate one committee member. Podesto himself would pick a consumer representative to serve as the fifth member.

When some residents and council members complained the committee seemed dominated by representatives likely to favor privatization, Podesto proposed four additional organizations be asked to participate: the union representing the city's utility workers; the Building Industry Association; a large utility customer, such as a food processor; and an additional consumer group.

If any organization declined to participate, Podesto would pick a replacement.

The city would make the proposals available to the committee and the general public the week of Sept. 9. Committee members would then report their findings to the council around Oct. 8, the date a city-hired consulting firm is scheduled to present its analysis.

The council would hold another public hearing Oct. 22 and cast a final vote on the consultant's recommendation Nov. 12.

The public would have about two months to consider the bids, less than the three months the consultant will have before issuing its report.

The city has refused to disclose the bids, arguing that they are too complex for the average person to understand and that the consultant can negotiate more effectively with the bidding companies in private.

Both The Record and the California First Amendment Coalition have filed requests, based on state open-record laws, to release the documents. The city had not responded to either request as of Friday.

In a July 29 letter to the city, Terry Francke, the coalition's general counsel, called Podesto's proposed review committee "essentially political and not responsive to the immediate rights of the public generally to obtain copies of proposals for review."

The Record and the coalition are both weighing their legal options to force disclosure.

In the meantime, Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton, a group of residents highly critical of the privatization proposal, has gathered more than 13,000 signatures to force voter approval of any decision to hand utility operations to a private company.

Coalition Chairwoman Sylvia Kothe said her group hoped to have enough petitions signed by mid-August.

"If [council members] take action before our initiative is placed on the ballot, there's always the possibility of a referendum," Kothe said.

The City Council will consider Podesto's committee proposal at its meeting Tuesday night.