Court favors Oxnard resident in repeal of sewer rates

by David Michael Courtland

Oxnard’s attempt to nip in the bud a voter drive to repeal a sewer rate hike was shot down by Judge Rocky J. Baio on Friday, April 15, in Ventura County Superior Court.

Baio ordered the city to give Aaron Starr’s proposed voter initiative a title and write a descriptive summary of it so he can circulate a petition for signatures to get the initiative on the June election ballot.

“It could be extremely prejudicial towards Mr. Starr” not to grant him the right to circulate the petition, said Baio, who made his ruling after attorneys for Starr and the city of Oxnard argued for half an hour about whether Judge Baio should rule on the initiative’s constitutionality.

Baio gave Oxnard officials until noon Wednesday to comply with the order. Starr, financial controller of Haas Automation who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2014, hopes to gather the 1,430 voter signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot. Starr has until May 20 to gather the signatures.

Holly O. Whatley of the Los Angeles law firm Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, PC, representing the city of Oxnard, asked Baio to toss initiative out for being unconstitutional on its face. Whatley said the referendum would force the city to charge a rate too low for it to meet legal obligations.

That was essentially the same argument made by Oxnard’s Interim City Attorney, Stephen Fischer, when he refused to grant the title and summary — required by California law for initiatives to be valid — because the initiative would leave the city unable to pay its annual bond debt.

But Attorney Brian Hildreth, representing Starr, argued the initiative fell squarely within the parameters of Prop. 218, the California law that grants voters the right to repeal taxes and rates passed by public officials.

Hildreth noted the proposed initiative doesn’t set a new rate, it just repeals an old one, which is allowed under Prop. 218.

After deciding against Whatley’s request to dismiss the case Baio made his ruling on the title and summary issue. Oxnard City Council decided Tuesday, April 19, it would not appeal the decision.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Hildreth called the city’s arguments “a ploy to use the courts to interfere with (Starr’s) constitutional right to engage in the initiative process.”

Starr said the ruling was a victory for the voters of Oxnard, adding that he hoped to get the petition for signatures in circulation by the first weekend of May.