In the News

Desal petition finalized: Group must now collect about 5,500 signatures from registered voters

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/3/12

SANTA CRUZ - The city attorney finalized language Friday on a petition from desalination opponents who are aiming for a ballot measure that would change the city's charter to let voters decide the project's fate.

The charter amendment, if approved by a majority of voters, would remove the City's Council authority to approve a seawater desalination plant designed to offset supply during severely dry periods. The amendment also would bar the city from incurring debt for the controversial project.

Rick Longinotti, a leader of the Right to Vote on Desal Coalition, said the group will have to work diligently to collect signatures from 15 percent of registered city voters, roughly 5,500, to place the matter on November's ballot. Advocates, who are hosting a kick-off party Feb. 12, have a 180-day window from the petition's publication in the newspaper, which Longinotti said would be soon.

"We're hopeful a lot of people will take petitions home with them so they can take them to work," he said. "We will go out to public areas, farmers' markets, supermarkets and movie lines."

Because the initiative is titled "Desalination Plant - Voter Approval," Longinotti said his group will have to be especially clear with citizens that, by signing the petition, they are not saying they would vote for or against desalination. Instead, they are saying they want the right to vote on the project during a future election rather than leave the decision in the council's hands.

If the group collects enough signatures that are later verified by the city clerk, the City Council will vote to put the charter change on the ballot.

Barisone said individual council members can vote no, but if a majority fails to approve the measure for election, it would open the city up to a lawsuit. The charter allows for voters to change it.

However, if the charter change passes, the city could still challenge the measure because it strips the council of legislative authority over a major infrastructure project, one that could cost more than $100 million. The city argues it needs desalination to protect its 92,000 water customers from severe cutbacks during drought years, but opponents believe conservation, regional water swaps and other steps can bolster supply less expensively.

The last successful charter change was in 1996, when voters gave the city the right to enter binding arbitration with the firefighters union during contract disputes. Voters approved a charter change in 2006 that gave them the right to block future water expansion to UCSC, but a court later invalidated the measure.

IF YOU GO

Kickoff party for Right To Vote on Desal Coalition's petition

WHEN: 2-4 p.m. Feb. 12

WHERE: 418 Front St., Santa Cruz

INFORMATION: www.voteondesalsc.org

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