In the News

Desal opponents vow to press on with ballot measure: Coalition worried city could overturn citizen right to vote on plant

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3/2/12

SANTA CRUZ - Despite a move by the city to let voters decide the fate of a proposed seawater desalination plant, opponents pledged Thursday to charge "full-speed ahead" on gathering signatures for a November ballot measure also designed to give voters a say.

Paul Gratz, a spokesman for the Right to Vote on Desal Coalition, said the group is concerned city officials will reverse an ordinance approved Tuesday by the City Council to allow a vote as early as 2014. He said the charter change amendment sought by his group to give voters the right to vote on desal at some point in the future would guarantee that no future council could take away that right.

Four of the council's seven seats are up for election in November. At least two prominent candidates who strongly favor the city's pursuit of a desalination plant have said they are likely to run again: Mayor Don Lane and former Mayor Cynthia Mathews.

"Many of us hope (all) the candidates are going to have a position on this," Gratz said.

City officials saw their ordinance as a compromise between an earlier version - one that would have allowed for a special election in 2013 - and the anti-desal campaign's to delay a vote until at least the next regularly scheduled election, in June 2014. But the mayor, who led the compromise, said the coalition's decision to press on will lead to separate elections funded by the city at a cost of $60,000-$90,000 each.

"I hope they'll reconsider that decision," Lane said. "By my compromise, I was creating a situation where we are minimizing cost to the city. Now they returned to the most expensive option, to require two elections."

Gratz said, "That's speculation on whether it's a compromise or not. I don't know what their intent was."

The charter change amendment will be placed on the ballot in November of this year if the coalition gathers a required 5,500 signatures from registered city voters. Gratz said his group will gather signatures through early May at farmers markets, businesses, UC Santa Cruz and entertainment venues. State law says the signatures of 15 percent of registered city voters to place

The city's own desal referendum would then be placed on the June or November 2014 ballots, or whenever the city is ready to move forward with construction. A council can indeed overturn the ordinance that requires the referendum, but voters could launch a petition to put in back in place.

Desal opponents are also concerned about how much the city continues to spend on the controversial project, and they want conservation and other alternatives given greater consideration. As of late last year, the city said expenses on the proposed plant to date total $9.3 million, to be shared with the Soquel Creek Water District.

Neither the ordinance nor the charter change amendment would bar the city from continuing to study or design the plant. Officials say the cost of design alone could reach $14 million, and construction will kick total costs up to $115 million or higher.

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