LIVINGSTON -- Residents, who came before the City Council to debate what to do after a judge ruled the city's controversial water rate plan unconstitutional, were stunned to hear the decision had already been made.
About 45 minutes into public discussion on the matter, City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs leaned forward and informed the audience the city had already filed an appeal of the ruling. Every time a member of the public tried to ask how this had happened or if the council had voted on it, Hobbs merely explained neither he nor the council would comment on pending litigation.
Residents were bewildered. State law requires meetings of legislative bodies be properly noticed and conducted in public. When it comes to legal matters, a body can meet in closed session but must announce if it takes any action. There was no announcement.
"I have never ever seen them make a decision, and not report out of council," said former mayor Gurpal Samra, a critic of the water rate plan and a leader of a recall effort to oust the mayor and two other council members.
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Later Thursday night, Hobbs told the Sun-Star he and City Manager Richard Warne made the decision to appeal the ruling, and did so Tuesday.
He said a provision of the resolution that raised the water rates -- the one a superior court judge called unconstitutional -- authorizes the city manager to take all action reasonable to protect the water rates. Using that provision, Warne and Hobbs didn't have to consult the council.
The judge, in his Feb. 25 ruling, also demanded the city halt its water rate increases, which began in 2009. Because of the appeal, however, the city will continue charging residents the increased rate, Hobbs said.
Only three of the five council members were present at the meeting. Councilman Rodrigo Espinoza and Councilwoman Margie Aguilar, who both voted against all previous water rate increases, were absent.
The council listened to all the residents' comments, even Samra's pleas: "Please don't try to appeal this. Just give people the money back." But he didn't find out until much later the decision had already been made.
Livingston hasn't raised rates since 1995, and officials say the city's water service cannot pay for itself on the old rates. Both the water and wastewater services have run up a $1 million deficit over the past 14 years, Warne explained.
The absence of two council members created a problem for another agenda item. The City Council was forced to pull a medical marijuana moratorium off the agenda because it did not have the four votes required to pass it.
The council sought the ordinance after local bar owner Mike Sperry Jr. asked to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the city. In researching regulations for the business, city staff quickly discovered there is a large hole in Livingston's ordinance that governs the business. The city's police chief had never created a list of regulations with which such a business would need to comply.
Sperry was happy no moratorium was imposed but asked the council to instead repair its ordinance. He said he's been waiting patiently to know the regulations and requirements and didn't understand why the city can't just have a discussion on medical marijuana dispensaries.
Mayor Daniel Varela Sr. responded the earliest the issue could come back would be April 6 because the council wasn't having another meeting this month. He did not indicate if it would be a proposed moratorium or a revised ordinance.
Later in the meeting, when the council called for a special meeting on March 16 to interview potential planning commissioners, Sperry again approached the podium, threw up his hands and said, "I'm back," drawing raucus laughter from the crowd.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.