The Public Eye

City of Dixon sues taxpayer association over planned election

A judge has ruled that the city of Dixon violated state privacy laws in the process of suing a local taxpayers association that is seeking to stop sewer rate increases at the ballot.

In the lawsuit filed in Solano Superior Court, the city included a 280-page copy of the 1,700 signatures the Solano County Taxpayers Association filed to force an election that could block the rate hikes. The city’s release of the signatures breached state privacy restrictions, a judge ruled this month.

According to the taxpayers group and its attorney, the lawsuit and the release of the signatures are attempts by the city to silence debate on the sewer rate increase, which the City Council approved last year to build $28 million in wastewater treatment improvements.

City Manager Jim Lindley said that is not the case. The city convened a citizens commission that discussed the project for years, and last year followed the state process for approving a rate increase, including giving property owners the chance to file protests.

According to the lawsuit and Lindley, the city cannot meet treatment requirements set by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board without raising sewer rates. The district has fined the city for treatment violations in the past and could continue if improvements aren’t made. The change would raise monthly rates for the average home from $26 to $42, Lindley said.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said, using the same language included in the lawsuit.

Because the election could overturn the rate increase, the city argues, the judge should set aside the city’s own law requiring an election when residents submit enough signatures. State law requiring the city to meet wastewater treatment standards should trump city law, the city argues.

The City Council earlier this year set the election for November 2016, even though construction on the wastewater project is scheduled for this year. That date was set because of the costs of holding a special election and because the petition did not specifically request a special election, Lindley said.

The taxpayers association is now collecting signatures for a petition requesting a special election.

When the City Council placed the sewer rate increase on the ballot, it also voted to pursue legal action to halt the election. City Attorney Steven Churchwell filed the lawsuit, including the petition signatures as an exhibit, records show.

The inclusion of the signatures prompted another lawsuit from Davis attorney Michael Thomas Nolan, who accused Dixon officials of “invasion of privacy” and violating a state law requiring initiative signatures to remain private. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of a “John Doe” who signed the petition.

On April 1, Solano Superior Court Judge Scott Keys ordered the city to seal the signatures in the court file and to make sure other copies are privately held by the city clerk, court records say. Churchwell offered to pay filing fees, service fees and copy fees for Nolan and others involved n the lawsuit.

Neither Churchwell nor Lindley returned messages seeking comment about the city’s release of the signatures.

Ourania Riddle of the taxpayers association said the city’s intent is clear. “It’s intimidation,” she said, adding that the association has encountered greater resistance to getting signatures since the city released the early round of signatures.

She said the city is trying to stifle public debate about the rate increase with the lawsuit. Ryan Cogdill, an attorney with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he may formally accuse the city of filing a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

“There are multiple ways the city can respond to this wastewater deficiency,” said Cogdill, who is representing the Solano County group at no charge. “We want the city to seriously consider all the options.”

Riddle said the association isn’t opposed to some sort of rate increase and recognizes the need to meet state water-quality standards. The association objects to the technology the city has chosen and thinks the city has not thoroughly considered less expensive options, she said.

Lindley disagrees. He said a citizens commission that included Riddle could not reach a consensus on wastewater treatment, forcing the City Council to choose. The city considered numerous options, including having a treatment company official address a special City Council meeting when the association requested a look at its treatment method, he said.

Pamela Creedon, executive officer at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, sent a letter to the taxpayers association earlier this year saying the board supported the city’s treatment plan. Given the city’s long history of past violations, a delay in making the improvements “could have disastrous consequences,” she wrote.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.