Privatization issue moves closer to ballot

By Cheryl Miller
Record Staff Writer
Published Thursday, August 22, 2002

Critics of Stockton's proposal to privatize its water utilities submitted more than 18,000 signatures to the city Wednesday, taking the first step toward putting the prickly issue before voters.

Members of the anti-privatization group Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton circulated petitions over the past seven weeks and hope to qualify their measure for a special election, which could be held as early as January.

The initiative would require a public vote on any City Council decision to enter into a contract worth $5 million or more with a private utilities operator. A city-paid consultant is reviewing the proposals of three corporations seeking to run the city's water and wastewater divisions.

"Most of us are still opposed to privatization because of the unanswered questions and the unresolved issues," coalition member Sylvia Kothe said at a small morning rally on the steps of City Hall. "We question the validity of the process."

The City Clerk's office will review the submitted signatures and then forward them to the county Registrar of Voters office, which will attempt to validate the names of petition signers.

For years, the city has been mulling the possibility of privatizing water operations in an attempt to cut costs. The City Council in February invited USFilter, OMI Thames and Stockton Water Service to bid on an operating contract with Stockton.

Those bids are in the hands of a Boston-based consultant, who has reviewed the documents and sought additional information from the companies. Despite legal requests from several organizations, including The Record, the city has refused to make the bids public, arguing that the consultant can negotiate a better deal if discussions are handled in private.

The city plans to release the bids during the week of Sept. 9 to the general public and a committee composed of business leaders and consumer advocates.

Earlier this year, the City Council denied a request by Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton to put the privatization issue on the ballot.

"This is a legislative decision that the council has been elected to make," Mayor Gary Podesto said Wednesday.

The citizens group includes residents and members of the Green Party and Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. In the spring, the coalition presented the City Council with 2,800 signatures on a nonbinding petition opposing water-system privatization.

Coalition member and local Green Party Chairwoman Amy Green said the three private operators should have plenty of money to spend on defeating the initiative, but, she added, "our timing is pretty good with all these corporate misdeeds going on."

* To reach reporter Cheryl Miller e-mail cmiller@recordnet.com