Recall effort under way in Livingston

March 2, 2010 

LIVINGSTON -- A group of residents is attempting to recall Livingston's mayor and two council members.

Former mayor Gurpal Samra said the group of about 25 angry residents submitted three separate petitions to recall Mayor Daniel Varela Sr., Councilman Frank Vierra and Councilwoman Martha Nateras. Each of the elected officials voted in favor of Livingston's controversial, multiyear water rate increase.

Samra estimated the group needed about 1,000 signatures per petition and turned in around 1,500 on each to allow for errors.

Donna Barnes, executive assistant to the City Council and city manager, confirmed that the recall petitions were filed Friday. Barnes said she's working closely with the city's Sacramento-based attorney to verify the signatures and determine the validity of the petitions. She said would know more once that's done.

Samra said the residents want to recall the officials because of the way they went about approving the water rate increase. They also believe the increase approved is more than the city needs to run its water and wastewater systems.

In 2009, the Livingston council deadlocked 3-2 on several votes over its proposed water rate increases. The council was advised by its city attorney at the time that it needed a super-majority, or four votes, to pass the increase because of Proposition 218 requirements.

In June 2009, the council fired the attorney putting forth that advice. Then it hired the current attorney, who said the council could pass a resolution raising rates with a simple majority. In July 2009, a simple majority of the council approved raising water rates more than 100 percent over the next several years.

A Merced County Superior Court Judge recently declared that action unconstitutional and demanded the city halt the implementation of the rate increase.

"I don't believe that Mayor Varela, (Councilman) Vierra or Councilwoman Nateras had any ill intentions. There was nothing they were trying to do devious, but they just listened to the wrong people," Samra said.

Samra also alleges the legal fees incurred by the council defending its actions are costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The recall is the only thing we can think of to save the city now," he said.

Samra himself has been the focus of previous probes alleging improper practices.

A Merced County civil grand jury investigation found Samra, while he was mayor from 2006 to 2008, inappropriately pressured city employees for the personal gain of another council member. Samra has denied the allegations.

Varela, Vierra and Nateras didn't return calls requesting comment by the Sun-Star's deadline.

Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or astarnes@mercedsun-star.com.