Possible Utility Sale Sparks Voter Referendum

Issue 8 would change process for sale of Cincinnati Water Works

Oct 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The possible sale of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works has prompted the latest voter referendum from the We Demand a Vote Coalition.

Under a scenario being studied, the city-owned utility would be sold to a newly created regional water authority, overseen by a board of trustees and regulated by rules spelled out in Ohio law. The regional district would pay a sliding annual payment to Cincinnati for the utility, starting at $6 million its first year and increasing each year for the next 75 years.

If Issue 8 is approved, however, a public vote would be required before city officials could sell the Water Works.

Referendum supporter Christopher Smitherman, president of the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter, says the stakes are higher in this case than they would be with other public utilities.

“People view and understand water as a scarcity,” he says. “Controlling water and having access to it is like gold.”

The NAACP — along with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) — collected about 14,000 petition signatures, far more than the 6,150 required to put the measure on the November ballot. He called the voter response “overwhelming.”

At the center of the debate is the future of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the main water supplier for about 235,000 homes and businesses in the region.

Although Issue 8 isn’t about the sale of Water Works per se, referendum supporters say the city should keep direct control of the utility and the charter amendment will ensure voters have input. Also, Smitherman and others say the control is needed so water quality is kept high and rates are kept reasonable.

Opponents reply that state law already allows citizen input into the process. Further, they believe requiring a vote before the sale or transfer of assets is micro-managing Cincinnati’s representative style of government and clutters the city’s charter with narrowly tailored provisions rather than outlining broad policy issues.

“The ballot initiative itself is on whether voters have the right to vote on this,” says Water Works Director David Rager, adding, “They have that anyway.”

And here’s where the confusion sets in. According to Smitherman, the referendum will prevent a small group — Cincinnati City Council — from unilaterally deciding the fate of the utility.

“To say that nine members of council and the mayor can sell the water without the (in put) of the people, that’s scary to me,” he says. “If we hadn’t raised the signatures, they would have already done the transaction.”

Rager counters, however, that’s simply not the case.

Council wasn’t anywhere near a decision on any sale when petitioners raised their concern. Instead, council was mulling whether to proceed with a study on the matter, the first step in a roughly 18-month process.

Steps in the process include at least one public hearing on the issue, at which the city would have to show a detailed plan for the proposed water district. A Common Pleas Court judge would be assigned to oversee the process and could call for additional studies or public hearings to ensure full disclosure of the proposed district’s details.

At the end of the process, state guidelines include provisions for voter referendum on any decision.

“Significant decisions of council are always subject to voter referendum,” Rager says. “So what are we voting on in November? We’re voting to do something that already exists in the law.”

According to Smitherman, the goal is to clarify and refine the decision-making process as much as it’s meant to affect the outcome of the Water Works issue.

“People have to understand what our charter is,” he says. “It should reflect the current times. Things like water, it’s time for there to be some framework, some rules of the game.”

If the referendum passes, it would take an optional safeguard — a final public check over City Council — and make it a mandatory step in the process. If it fails, concerned voters will still be able to challenge council’s decisions on Water Works; they just won’t be required to do so.

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