GA calls fee protest a ‘non event’

GA calls fee protest a ‘non event’By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff WriterAfter the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority voted 4-1 to approve a groundwater replenishment fee amid strong opposition from the public, valley property owners have since gathered nearly 3,000 referendum signatures in an effort to move the decision to a ballot and a vote of the people.

“We demand a repeal of this unjust and harmful law,” said member of the public Mike Neel, calling into last week’s GA meeting.

The $2,130-per-acre-foot fee is a massive increase from the GA’s first $30-per-acre-foot fee to pay for a California State Water Project allocation, but without actually bringing any water to the IWV basin. The fee is anticipated to add some $300 annually to standard IWV Water District user’s bills and thousands more to heavy users.

The GA received roughly 5,000 Proposition 218 protests in response to the fee. Most who voiced opposition, including the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors, IWV Economic Development Corporation, Coso Geothermal, Searles Valley Minerals and the Water District, admitted the need for an augmented water supply, but opposed such a drastic increase without any certainty of importing water to the valley.

But the protest hearing required some 10,000 protests – 50 percent of the affected property owners – and was not successful, allowing the item to go to a vote of the GA board.

During the replenishment fee hearing, GA Chair and Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason said that those campaigning against the fee were “not doing this community justice and were motivated by something other than the best interests of this community.”

“Mr. Gleason had the temerity to make that statement … but pushing it forward for his interests was apparently OK,” said Neel during public comment last week. “This ordinance saddles us with more onerous taxes and brings many jobs in the valley into jeopardy.”

Neel argued that the protest votes and referendum signatures exercised “the right to petition the government for redress of grievance” and represented the will of the people.

“Through grassroots efforts of businesses and individuals – including boardmembers from one of your agencies – a referendum petition has been circulated valley wide, resulting in more than 2,900 signatures of people alarmed at this affront,” he said.

“A vast majority of parcel owners in the Indian Wells Valley did not file a protest, so listening to the people is exactly what we’re doing,” argued Gleason.

Gleason asked Kern County legal counsel Phil Hall if the referendum had any meaning or validity.

“This is a legal non-event,” said Hall. “California Supreme Court on Aug. 3 ruled referendums of a fee like the one you passed are not legally legitimate.”

Hall was presumably referring to Wilde v. City of Dunsmuir where Dunsmuir residents unsuccessfully used the referendum power to challenge the city’s increased water rates.

The Court of Appeal held that these “fees or charges” were subject to challenge by referendum. But the state supreme court voted unanimously that water increases were “tax levies,” rather than fees, and therefore exempt as referendums should not be used to disrupt essential government services.

With the failed Prop 218 protest hearing, it is unclear if opponents of the replenishment have a way forward. But Neel said that if the referendum didn’t apply, there were “numerous avenues to continue to fight.”

Pictured: Lindsey Stephens hands off thousands of referendum signatures to Police Chief Jed McLaughlin at City Hall. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-09-25