The City of Sierra Madre was dismissive of an "administrative claim" filed earlier this week by local blogger John Crawford, who runs the Sierra Madre Tattler, seeking repeal of the recent water rate hike or face legal action.
“It’s very similar to the ,” City Manager Elaine Aguilar said of the threat from Crawford, an ardent opponent of the water rate increase, whose claim “ is a formal notice demanding that City Hall either comply with Proposition 218 … or face the music.”
Asked what action the city would be taking in response to the claim, Aguilar added that she has forwarded a copy of Crawford's letter to the members of the City Council, but that she did not expect a change in the city’s response.
Reached via telephone by Patch, Crawford declined to comment on his claim or the threatened lawsuit.
Crawford has filed to the water rate increase, along with residents Anita Delmer, John Herrmann and Kurt Zimmerman. Only Crawford signed the latest claim, which instructs the city to direct any response to his residence.
Crawford’s Tattler reported that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is “now considering filing a ‘friend of the court’ legal brief in support of our water rate challenge.”
Tim Bittle, the HJTA’S director of legal affairs, was noncommittal in an interview with Patch on Wednesday.
“Well there’s been no lawsuit filed yet, has there?” Bittle said. “And even if a lawsuit is filed, there’s no statutory procedure for friend of the court briefs, which are called amicus curiae briefs, to be filed in the trial court. They are first permitted in the court of appeal. So there would have to be a lawsuit filed, and then the losing party would have to appeal the decision before it would be timely for us to even talk about filing an amicus brief.”
(Updated: In an earlier Cindy Perez, Bittle’s legal affairs assistant--saying she was speaking on Bittle's behalf--told Patch that, based on the information HJTA had received, "there wasn’t anything that was substantial enough for us to get involved.” Notwithstanding accusations in the Tattler that Patch has misrepresented the HJTA's position, neither Bittle nor Perez has ever asked Patch to correct or clarify the association's earlier comments--despite Patch's regular efforts to give the association the chance to do so--including in the interview Patch conducted with Bittle on Wednesday. )
Crawford has been preparing for legal action against the city at least since Jan. 29, when his supporters attended a $50 per plate dinner “to raise funds for a potential legal challenge to the City of Sierra Madre's illegal water rate increase procedures,” according to Crawford’s blog. No details have been made available regarding how much money was raised during or since that event.
Crawford's Latest Claim Against the City
Crawford's most recent claim, dated Feb. 22, 2010, (sic) is similar to past letters he has sent to City Hall. It alleges that the City Council violated certain aspects of Proposition 218, “as well as Due Process Clauses of the Federal and California Constitutions.” A copy of Crawford's letter is attached to this article.
Specifically, the letter takes aim at several aspects of the process used by the city to notify residents of the impending rate hike:
• Crawford alleges that the city failed to meet the notification requirements by not including the amount of the proposed increase; that the notification did not include the reason for the increase; and that the city failed to notify residents of every meeting at which the rate hike would be discussed.
The letter alleges that the city’s notification “contained neither the amount of the proposed rate increase nor the information necessary for the owner to estimate the proposed increase.” Crawford says that the notice required property owners to estimate his or her own potential increase based on a “complicated” formula and that the notice failed to provide the specific size of each owner’s water meter or details about a tiered rate structure.
• Crawford also complains that the city gave no reason for the increase and includes a quote from the city’s initial notice that reads, “the City imposes its water rates in order to fund the City’s costs of operating and maintaining the water system, as well as to pay off the costs of improvements to that system.”
Crawford’s letter argues that this language was insufficient because it is not explicit in stating that current funding levels are inadequate and that rates must be increased.
It wasn’t until the city issued a flyer that specifically addressed concerns for Sierra Madre’s municipal bond rating and the ongoing debt service to water bonds that Crawford was apparently satisfied that the “actual reason” had been given.
However, that flyer was issued too near the date of the first hearing on the increase, thus failing to satisfy Prop 218’s requirement of 45 days notice, assuming that flyer is considered to be the first satisfactory notice of the reason for the increase.
City officials have consistently maintained that water bonds and the payments made on those bonds are part of the city’s water costs and thus referenced, at least implicitly, in the language of the first official notice.
• Crawford also alleges that the city failed to comply with constitutional due process requirements by printing only English-language rate increase notifications.
“By refusing to print the notice in Spanish and other non-English languages spoken in Sierra Madre as well,” the letter reads, “the city ensured that every non-English speaking [property] Owner would remain unaware of the Proposed Rate Increase.”
The city dismissed the argument. “We aren’t aware of any requirement in Prop 218 that says it be done,” Aguilar said regarding the issue with English-only notifications.