Livingston looking at hefty bill for special recall elections

Fast action needed to save money; proponents argue cost is justified.

May 7, 2010 

LIVINGSTON -- If the leaders of a recall election in Livingston want to save money, they'll need to act fast.

A petition to recall Mayor Pro Tem Frank Vierra from public office was filed with the city Wednesday.

The petitioners will have to follow a series of steps required by state law to see the petitions through to an election. But if each deadline is pushed to its last day, the election would be held sometime between Dec. 21, 2010, and Jan. 18, 2011.

That means Livingston residents could end up hitting the polls three times in five months -- for two special elections and the November general election -- at a significant cost to the city's government.

If the residents pursuing the second recall election move fast, they might be able to fold the recall question into the already-scheduled November election. If not, it could mean a sizable chunk of change will be spent on the special election.

Livingston resident Julio Valdez announced at this week's City Council meeting that he and others were pursuing a second recall attempt against Vierra. (A similar move failed last month.)

The announcement came just as the council scheduled the $54,000 recall election of Mayor Daniel Varela and Councilwoman Martha Nateras for Aug. 31.

A group of angered citizens began the recall campaigns earlier this year, after the council used questionable tactics to push through a water utility rate increase.

In 2009, the council deadlocked 3-2 on several votes over proposed water rate increases. The city attorney, Malathy Subramanian, at the time said a super-majority, or four votes, was required to pass the increase because of Proposition 218 rules.

In June 2009, the council fired Subramanian and hired Jonathan Hobbs, who said the council could pass a resolution raising rates with a simple majority. In July 2009, Nateras, Varela and Vierra approved raising water rates more than 100 percent over the next several years.

A Merced County Superior Court Judge recently declared that action unconstitutional, but the city attorney said he appealed the court's decision in March.

Livingston hasn't raised rates since 1995. The water and wastewater services have run up a $1 million deficit over the past 14 years, according to city reports.

The months-old decision still eats up the majority of time at most council meetings.

Valdez said the second recall attempt is necessary because, in his opinion, Vierra remains unresponsive to the public.

Valdez also said the costs associated with the recalls were warranted, given the hefty legal fees the city's been dealt for dealing with the rate crisis.

"We have considered the cost. It is going to cost the city more to keep them than to pay for the recall," Valdez said. "The more they contest the rate increase in court, the more it is going to cost for the lawyer to be there representing the city."

Valdez said the timing of the elections was an unfortunate reality.

In a recall election, the ballot will ask if the official should be recalled, and will also contain a second section allowing voters to choose the person's replacement.

The official is recalled if a simple majority of the voters mark yes on their ballots. The top vote-getter on the second section would then be elected to the seat.

If the recall fails, the votes for replacements aren't counted and the person remains in office.

Vierra was elected in November 2000 and most recently re-elected in 2008. His current term expires in 2012.

Varela was elected on Nov. 4, 2008, and his regular term ends Nov. 2 -- 63 days after the special election.

Nateras was elected in Nov. 4, 2008. Her regular term ends in 2012 as well.

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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