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Desal opponents plan November ballot measure: Petition for city charter change calls for voter OK of water project

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1/27/12

SANTA CRUZ - Opponents of a proposed seawater desalination plant have submitted a preliminary petition notice to the city that would ask voters whether they want the opportunity to approve the controversial project in a future election.

City Attorney John Barisone has until Feb. 6 to reply to the notice filed by Rick Longinotti, a founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives. The petition proposes a change in the city's charter that would ensure Santa Cruz "does not approve, permit or fund a desalination plant without voter approval."

The petition says the citizens find "that the proposal to construct and operate a desalination facility raises serious economic, environmental and community concerns of such importance that a decision to approve such a project should not be made unless approved by a majority of voters" during a primary or regular election.

Longinotti charges in the petition that the city "has spent millions of dollars in pursuit of desalination without a public vote or rate payer approval." The charter change would be designed to keep the city from incurring debt through bonds or other means to fund the plant without voter approval, but it would not restrict ongoing spending for environmental analysis or other project preparation.

Once Barisone responds with the city's argument and the petition notice is officially published, the organizers have 180 days to collect signatures. Petitions for city charter amendments require the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters, which in Santa Cruz currently total 36,279.

If enough signatures are verified, the council will be bound to place an initiative on November's ballot at the city's cost, according to the city clerk's office. To pass, the petition would require a majority vote, and the earliest the city could put a new measure before voters to actually move desalination forward would be June 2014.

Calling for a charter amendment rather than a simple referendum in November buys opponents time.

"We think most people in the city aren't well enough informed on the issues," Longinotti said. "We need a couple years to figure out what the issues are at stake."

Mayor Don Lane said the voters should be given the chance to weigh in on the desalination facility, which would have the capacity to produce at least 2.5 million gallons of drinking water per day. But he said the city could put the question to voters in a special election once the council is ready to vote on the project, perhaps in 2013.

"I think it would make sense to put it to a vote when the time is right," Lane said.

The city argues a desalination plant is necessary to offset supply shortages during severely dry years. The facility, the cost for which could exceed $100 million by city estimates, would be paid largely through increases on ratepayers, some of whom live outside city boundaries and would be ineligible to vote on desalination.

A draft environmental impact report is due in April, but city officials don't expect a final report will be ready for the council to certify before November's election. Four of the council's seven seats also will be up for election, which will make desalination a key issue for voters already regardless of whether the charter change makes the ballot.

The petition organizers have planned a kick-off event for 2 p.m. Feb. 12 at 418 Front St.

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