Aaron Starr wins another round against Oxnard utility rate increase

By George Miller

High legal drama in Oxnard today …. local business executive, activist and City Council candidate Aaron Starr’s legal team defeated the City in court today, winning a ruling that the City must produce a ballot “title & summary” of his initiative to roll back the recent wastewater rate increase. He cannot circulate ballot petitions until this occurs and signatures must be turned in by 5-20-16. So, accordingly he invoked urgency to get this on the court calendar ASAP. The City has fought him every step of the way, using taxpayer funds to do so, employing the mantra that this is to protect the ratepayers from Mr. Starr. The summary was to have been supplied within 15 days’ of Starr’s initiative filing, which should have been provided no later than 3-23-16.


Oxnard’s case  Attorney of Record Holly Whatley and Starr’s attorney Brian Hildreth stand for pleadings to VC Superior Court Judge Rocky Baio, 4-15-16/ Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

The City attempted to raise rates on water, solid waste and wastewater service, effective 3-1-16. A grassroots effort led by Starr was successful in stopping the first two. Mayor Flynn led a compromise effort to accede to stopping the first two, with periodic future rate reviews, but stayed firm on getting the Council to approve an 87% increase in wastewater rates over 4 years. This would impact a typical residential customer by +$326 per year and much more for most business/institutional entities. Starr claims that the rate increases are unjustified, that the City’s accounting numbers are garbage, that the wastewater dept. is inefficient and that some investments can be deferred or may even be unnecessary. He points out that the wastewater capital plan has already been lowered from $675 million to $538 million, yet the rate increases these were based upon (from the Cost of Service Study) have not been lowered commensurately. Whether he is correct or not, City financial records indicate that the wastewater fund reserves are nearly depleted and that without the increase, all funds would have been gone fairly soon.,

He is tight-lipped about what he would propose instead.

Judge Baio started off today’s hearing by summarizing the case and timeline (incorporated in timeline below) and stating that there were four matters of law at issue and that he intended to restrict today’s ruling to just one: whether the City should be compelled to produce the title and summary for Starr’s signature gathering. There are actually two cases: Oxnard vs Starr, to stop the initiative (Case 479-696) and Starr v Oxnard to compel the City to provide the title and summary to get the petition underway.

An outside attorney for the City, Holly Whatley*, said there are legal precedents that a ballot initiative cannot deprive a city of revenues needed to operate a utility. She cited the Mission Springs case to support her position. She said that the case was identical to this Oxnard case except it was for  a water utility instead, citing govt. code 54515. She said Prop 218 changes nothing that impacts this sort of case. We heard that she supplied 300 pages of supporting exhibits. She said that if the initiative is unlawful, then the City is not required to provide the title and summary- voters can’t exempt themselves from compliance, which would include such things as having enough money in  the fund for expense coverage, bond coverage and compliance with covenants.

Starr’s attorney Hildreth said his firm won two cases, producing rulings that it is a city’s ministerial duty to produce the title and summary and that any cases would have to be about disputing the election results.

Evidently, Judge Baio believed him, because he ended up ruling that the City must produce the title and summary immediately and report back to him next Wednesday on it. Starr later made a beeline to the City Attorney’s office to demand the document at once. But he told us that Fischer refused, claiming it wasn’t due until Wednesday- never mind what the judge’s ruling said. When we asked Starr what he would do about the City’s direct disobedience of the order, he deferred to counsel Brian T. Hildreth, of Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, LLP. Fusher later said in a memo to Oxnard Council and staff that the judge had modified the plaintiff’s proposed due date to Wednesday.

Starr and Hildreth held a press conference in the courthouse hallway earlier, after today’s court victory.  

Hildreth stated that they were not there today to decide on the legality of the initiative, but only to reinforce that it is the City’s ministerial duty to provide the title and summar to let the initiative process proceed and that this was not the appropriate time to decide on its legality. He was very dismissive of the defendant’s attorney’s provision of “300 pages of extraneous exhibits,” as they did not even address the matter of law at issue today.

When we  remarked on how he had described the opposition attorney as “esteemed” and “competent,” we asked if he really thought that, in contrast with other comments he made about the inappropriateness of their legal arguments. He replied that she’s paid to represent the city’s interests.

Advertisement- 740 South B Street, Oxnard, (805) 486-6878

Advertisement- 740 South B Street, Oxnard, (805) 486-6878

Starr characterized the ruling as “a victory for the residents of Oxnard” to halt unjustified rate increases of 87%, or $326/yr. for a typical wastewater  customer.  When we asked when he thought he could start collecting signatures, he said he would have to first post notice in a newspaper of record, post notices around town, get petitions prepared, hopefully start around May 1 collecting the 1430 registered Oxnard voter signatures required (5% of the 2014 gubernatorial election turnout) and submit by the 5-20-16 deadline to get the initiative on the ballot.

CitizensJournalLogoSqLgAaron Starr comments video by Dan Pinedo/CitizensJournal.us


Hildreth answered our question about how this would play out, saying that he expects the City to appeal today’s ruling  and request an immediate stay. He will fight both, but it seems likely that they would be permitted to continue to collect signatures while the matter is being litigated. He declined to further reveal their legal strategy to deal with attempts to stop them.

They told the assemblage that City Attorney Fischer wanted “guidance from the court” and that he got it today.


Plaintiff Aaron Starr beams as judge rules in his favor to immediately compel Oxnard to produce ballot initiative title & Summary at VC Superior Court hearing, 4-15-16


Timeline icon

  • January 16, 2016- City proposes wastewater increase
  • January- Starr initiates a campaign to stop increase, gaining about 5000 resident protests
  • January 26- City temporarily drops water and solid waste increases, approves wastewater increase
  • March 8- Starr files ballot initiative to roll back rate increase.
  • March 23, 2016- City skips deadline to provide initiative summary for petition, files suit top end initiative, calling it “illegal
  • Starr files a suit to force City to provide title & summary
  • Court sets August 19 hearing date, which would effectively stop 2016 ballot initiative because it is too late
  • Starr persuades Judge Baio to set 4-15-16 hearing
  • 4-15-16- Judge orders City to provide summary immediately and report back to him Wednesday, 4-20-16
  • This would enable Starr to start circulating petitions by about May 1 to gain the 1430 required signatures by 5-20-16 deadline
  • August 19 is still the scheduled hearing date for the City’s case. The City could expedite it to reduce uncertainty, but was using the strategy of delaying Starr.
  • November 7- election day and vote on the ballot initiativ,e unless the City is able to stop it or convince Starr to stop it.,

Probable next steps:

  • City will likely file an appeal and demand a stay. If a stay is granted, it may stop the effort, or judge may allow signature gathering to continue pending ruling on initiative legality. But he suggested today that it may be allowed to proceed and can only be contested after the November vote.
  • Starr would continue to collect signatures and put the initiative on the ballot, if no stay or negative ruling stops him.
  • As it stands now, Judge is inclined to let it roll to the election
  • City could roll back the rate increase anytime and.or negotiate another set of rates.
  • Or ballot initiative could lose, or it could succeed, forcing City to drop rate increase and start the rate setting process anew. This may not be good, because reserves are on the verge of being wiped out, which could trigger bond covenant violations and even impact service. City would have no alternative than to cut expenses or find revenues in some other manner.

Oxnard City Attorney Stephen Fischer’s internal memo on the matter:

FischerCityAttorneyHonorable Mayor and Councilmembers:
This afternoon, Judge Baio granted the writ directing me to issue the ballot title and summary for the proposed wastewater rate initiative. Judge Baio indicated that he was maintaining a level playing field to allow signatures to be gathered while preserving his ability to rule on whether the initiative should be placed on the ballot if it qualifies.
The Judge modified the petitioner’s proposed order to push back the time by which title and summary must be provided from Monday to Wednesday at noon, in order to allow time for the Council to discuss the matter in closed session Tuesday night. During closed session, the Council will consider the City’s options, including whether to appeal today’s ruling.

You can find more relevant  articles by searching CitizensJournal.us Oxnard utility rate increases

* Our original article reported that an attorney acting on behalf of the city at the 4-15-16 hearing was Jennifer Pancake. That is incorrect. She was at the last hearing. Present at the hearing was Holly Whatley.

George Miller is Publisher of CitizensJournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxna

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