In the News

Santa Cruz puts up its own desal plan for voters: Council will consider new ordinance Feb. 28

By J.M. BROWN - Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/16/12

SANTA CRUZ - Mayor Don Lane announced a proposed city ordinance Wednesday designed to short-circuit a citizen-driven initiative to give voters the final say on a controversial seawater desalination project.

Like the charter change amendment sought by desalination opponents, the ordinance to be considered by the City Council on Feb. 28 also would require Santa Cruz to put the question of a Westside desalination facility up for a popular vote.

Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, which hopes to collect the required 5,500 signatures to get a competing measure on November's ballot, is asking voters whether they want a future opportunity to approve a plant. The measure also would bar the city from incurring any debt for the project.

Lane and fellow Councilmember David Terrazas, who sit on a regional desalination task force, said in a statement that they proposed the ordinance because "there is strong community consensus that the voters should have the opportunity to make the call on how Santa Cruz will address our need for long-term drought protection and protection of coastal aquifers."

The pair are concerned the charter change amendment would tie citizens' hands in that it wouldn't allow a yes-or-no vote on the plant until 2014, the next regularly scheduled election. And it would cost the city at least $50,000 in election-related costs.

"I just don't think that initiative is necessary if the council is just prepared to make this commitment now, and I suspect that it is," Lane said in an interview late Wednesday.

The mayor said a vote on desalination could come as soon as 2013 after the required Environmental Impact Report for the project, which could cost ratepayers more than $100 million, is finalized. The first draft of the report is expected in two months.

Rick Longinotti, a founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, said the city's proposed ordinance will not keep his group from moving forward on a ballot initiative.

"While we celebrate this step by the council, we are concerned that the proposed ordinance could be repealed by the council at any time, unlike the ballot initiative that we are circulating," Longinotti said in an email late Wednesday. "Our ballot measure calls for a vote on desalination to take place in a regularly scheduled election."

Longinotti is concerned a 2013 election would cost taxpayers money as there is no regularly scheduled election.

Desal opponents are also irked that, when they first brought a proposed measure to the city, it was rejected by the city attorney for being too broad in its takeaway of the city's legislative authority. Based on that advice, the group rewrote the initiative as a charter change amendment, only to now see the council propose an ordinance change.

The difference, Lane said, is that the city's ordinance is more narrowly tailored to require voter approval for construction, not permitting or other preparatory steps.

Lane also addressed concerns that an ordinance could later be repealed by a future council, therefore effectively stripping voters of the right to OK the project. Four of the council's seven seats are up for election in November.

If a repeal ever happened, Lane said voters could file a petition to suspend it and then the city would be forced to put it up for a vote if it wanted to move ahead quickly.

The city has proposed a plant that would have the capacity to transform at least 2.5 million gallons of seawater per day into drinking water. The Soquel Creek Water District, which would also draw from the plant, is sharing the costs.

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