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The desal debate: 'Right to vote' taps into groundswell

By Margie Kern-Marshall, Karen Minkowski, and Steve Pleich
Opinion, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/26/12

The considerable financial and environmental consequences of the proposed ocean desalination plant have inspired our group of citizens to gather signatures on a ballot initiative that would put the decision on desalination in the hands of the voters in November.

Recently, Mayor Don Lane and Councilman David Terrazas proposed an ordinance that would commit the City Council to submit putting the decision on desalination to the voters. Backers of the Right to Vote on Desal ballot initiative see the Lane/Terrazas proposal as an important acknowledgement that a decision with weighty impact on voters' and ratepayers' pocketbooks, as well as the environment, should be made by the voters.

However, differences between their proposal and the citizens' ballot initiative are significant. The Lane/Terrazas ordinance could be overturned by a future council, whereas the community-driven ballot measure could only be reversed by the voters. Most importantly, if a future council were to overturn the ordinance, the community would only have 30 days in which to obtain the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters to qualify a referendum to reverse the council action.

A second major difference is that the Right to Vote on Desal ballot measure would require that a decision on desalination be made at a regularly scheduled election, not a special election. The Lane/Terrazas ordinance would allow a special election in 2013, following certification of a final Environmental Impact Report.

A special election in 2013 would likely have much low voter participation. The last mail-in special election that the city conducted, in August 2008, had merely 28 percent voter participation and cost more than $82,000. We are concerned that moneyed interests could sway the outcome of a special election by targeting likely voters with a heavy direct-mail, phone-call and advertising campaign. In Marin County's "right to vote on desal" ballot contest in 2010, Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, a San Francisco-based engineering company with large contracts in desalination development including in Santa Cruz, made campaign contributions to oppose the community-driven ballot Measure T.

Consider these important differences. A special election would cost our cash-strapped city more money than adding a proposition to the ballot in a regular election. According to the head of the county Elections Department, a special election $4-$5 per registered voter is significantly more expensive than a November election $1.50-$2.50 per registered voter for the city of Santa Cruz.

Finally, approving a regional desalination plant -- to be located on the city's Westside -- in 2013 could pre-empt a cost-effective and environmentally safe strategy for regional water transfers between districts, an approach that is currently being planned by the county of Santa Cruz. With this collaborative strategy, the city and adjacent water districts could use water from the San Lorenzo River in normal winters to recharge local aquifers, and then draw on those aquifers and share water during a drought. James Bentley, former superintendent of water production for the city of Santa Cruz, will speak on this strategy on Thursday, March 1st at 7 p.m. at the Quaker Meetinghouse, 225 Rooney St., Santa Cruz. For more information, see DesalAlternatives.org. Bentley was invited, then subsequently uninvited, to speak at a recent gathering of the Santa Cruz Neighbors.

For these reasons, we are continuing our non-partisan petition drive to gather signatures from Santa Cruz city voters through early May.

Margie Kern-Marshall, Karen Minkowski and Steve Pleich are Santa Cruz residents and members of RightToVoteOnDesal.org.

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