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Rush to Privatize Water Utilities Thwarts Citizen Participation;

Jan. 15, 2003

Rush to Privatize Water Utilities Thwarts Citizen Participation;
Process Being Hurried to Beat March Election

Statement of Jane Kelly, Director, Public Citizen’s California Office

Note: On Jan. 10, the city of Stockton released a 900-page proposed water utilities operation contract with OMI-Thames, a transnational corporate partnership. The Stockton City Council is to vote in February on the contract, the largest being negotiated in the United States and the first of its kind in the U.S. for United Kingdom-based and German-owned Thames Water. Last summer, the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton collected 18,000 signatures to qualify a ballot initiative, now scheduled for a March 4 special election, that would give voters the right to decide if their water utilities should be privatized. The February City Council vote is an attempt by the city to nullify the citizen efforts. In the next two weeks, the city is hosting a series of study sessions on the 20-year, $600 million deal. The first session is scheduled for 5 p.m. tonight at Tillie Lewis Theatre, Delta College.

It’s obvious that Stockton officials are trying to beat the March 4 election, despite a ballot initiative signed by 18,000 people calling for voter approval on any contract over $5 million to privatize public utilities. In forging ahead with negotiations, the council is ignoring the will of citizens. When such a large undertaking is rushed, mistakes happen, as proven in Atlanta, where officials likely will decide this week whether to continue its contract with United Water after a series of nightmarish scenarios unfolded for Atlanta residents.

The cursory public forums to be hosted by the city are merely providing a false pretense of public participation. With the study sessions beginning only three business days after the contract’s release to the public, there has been no time for in-depth analysis by citizens or the City Council members who might soon be voting on this monumental decision that will affect the city’s future for decades to come. If Mayor Gary Podesto – the person driving this misguided push to privatize – truly wanted public input, he would have allowed sufficient time for everyone to review the contract. The process as outlined is a total sham. Stockton residents are likely to suffer the consequences with higher rates, poor service and a loss of local control of their water systems, just as other cities that have privatized have experienced.

Rushing a decision of this magnitude is a recipe for disaster. Direct citizen participation is vital, but key decisions have been made in closed-door sessions with pro-privatization biased consultants. Stockton residents should not permit a corporate handshake to replace direct democracy.