Water issue took Claremont community by storm in 2014

The year ended much as it began for the city of Claremont, in litigation with Golden State Water Company. Only this time, the water table has turned and it’s the City of Trees doing the suing. After years of discussion and hard work, Claremont has taken the next step in its battle for control of the local water system and filed an eminent domain lawsuit against its owner and operator, Golden State Water Company.

Boy, what a difference a year makes!

In December 2013, the city was left to answer to Golden State after the company filed a Writ of Mandate against Claremont, seeking the release of the city’s feasibility study. The privately owned water company alleged the city lacked transparency and had not complied with the California Public Records Act and instead rejected requests to produce documents that supported charts and graphs shown by the city at a public meeting in November 2013.

“Transparency is not the issue here,” Claremont City Manager Tony Ramos was quoted as saying in the November 20, 2013 Claremont COURIER.

However, by late January 2014, the city began to slowly reveal its hand. The release of a draft Environmental Impact Report revealed Claremont officials were in talks with the city of La Verne to assume responsibility for the city’s water system should it be obtained from Golden State. Claremont took it one step further in February 2014, approving a Memorandum of Understanding between the two cities. On March 3, the La Verne City Council voted unanimously to move forward with an operational study of running Claremont’s water system. To date, the findings of the study have not been released by either city.

The Claremont City Council held a meeting in March at Taylor Hall, where they unanimously agreed to explore the possibility of obtaining a voter-approved revenue bond to finance the acquisition. Officials estimated that current revenue generated from water could support as much as an $80 million purchase price for the system. However, should the water system and rights value come in higher than $80 million, the city would need to look to bonds to fund the overage.

The month of May brought more lawsuits from Golden State, this time challenging the city’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for failing to analyze the direct, indirect and cumulative environmental effects of the project as a whole. The lawsuit didn’t dampen the efforts of the city council, which unanimously approved a water revenue bond measure for the November ballot. The proposed bonds would give the city an additional $55 million toward the acquisition of Claremont’s system, should the price tag exceed the $80 million.

In June 2014, Claremont Affordable Water Advocates (CAWA) made a splash during a city council meeting. The citizens group was against acquiring the water system by eminent domain and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Golden State. The Claremont City Council rejected the MOU, stating it was not a legally enforceable document nor in the best long-term interest of the ratepayers.

Mayor Joe Lyons called upon Golden State numerous times to come to the table and negotiate directly with the city and provide residents with a solution to the community’s ongoing water rate increases, but his requests fell on deaf ears.

With the water revenue bond measure slated for a November vote, things really heated up over the summer. By mid-July, the city had hired a public relations firm and, on behalf of Golden State, canvassers started making the rounds, circulating a petition for a separate measure calling for voter approval on the city’s water bonds. Two canvassers—an unidentified male and female—garnered attention when they were videotaped on home surveillance as the man groped the woman on the front porch of a Claremont home. The couple’s caught-on-tape antics made local and national news.

By month’s end, the city of Claremont and Golden State had come to an unexpected compromise in the ongoing dispute. A five-page agreement between the parties required the city to release its Feasibility Study and revise the ballot language to seek approval of $135 million in bonds rather than $55 million as previously stated. In exchange, the water company would stop a petition drive for a counter-initiative and drop legal claims and lawsuits. Both parties complied and the ballot measure moved forward.

Claremont FLOW (Friends of Locally Owned Water) also made its debut and quickly gathered the support of local ratepayers. The citizen’s action group advocated in favor of the newly-named Measure W, the water revenue bond measure coming before Claremont voters in November.

In the months that followed, both sides of Measure W sprung into action. Yard signs and mailers began to pop up, with residents questioning the legality and ethicality of it all. And the city was no exception. What was intended by the city as an informational mailer on Measure W attracted the attention of a Claremont homeowners political action committee sponsored by Golden State Water. “Stop the Water Tax—No on W,” previously referred to as “Stop the $135 Million Takeover,” issued a cease-and-desist demand against the city, claiming that the mailer was advocacy-oriented and violated the laws against using public funds for campaign materials.

The weeks leading up to the election offered many opportunities for Claremont voters to learn about the ballot measure.

The Claremont Chamber of Commerce hosted a seminar in September. The following month, Active Claremont hosted a two-hour forum at the Hughes Center. Freeman Allen, in favor of the ballot measure, argued the purchase would lower water bills, allowing the city to set its own water rates and look towards future provisions for water reclamation. Mark Sterba, against the measure, argued the city’s feasibility study is flawed, and that ratepayers would be taking on an enormous debt without knowing how the system would be run.

Just prior to the election, Golden State released its second analysis of the Claremont water system in draft form. The draft analysis included a review of the 150 miles of pipe, 17 wells, 11 reservoirs, 11 booster stations and 11,065 customer meters that make up the Claremont system, which estimated the replacement value of the system to be $222,772,010.

Regardless of the $222 million price tag given to the water system by Golden State, Claremont voters overwhelmingly passed Measure W on November 4 with 71 percent in favor, a significantly higher percentage than needed to move forward with the potential acquisition.

Given the green light by voters, the city didn’t waste any time in moving forward with eminent domain. Two resolutions of necessity were prepared for the city council’s consideration, one governing the interests of the Claremont system located within the city and a second for the small portions of the water system located outside of the city in parts of Montclair, Upland and Pomona as well as a small, unincorporated area of Los Angeles County.

The Claremont City Council unanimously adopted both resolutions on November 25, authorizing the city’s proposed acquisition of Golden State Water Company’s Claremont water system by eminent domain.

As we move into 2015, the legal battle for ownership of the Claremont water system will get messy. There’s no quick fix and an eminent domain fight could take years in court. Regardless, for 71 percent of Claremont voters, it’s well worth the fight.

—Angela Bailey



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