Atwater backs out of county association

ATWATER -- City leaders will no longer have a voice in the conversation about the county's long-term transportation plans.

But they're willing to shout their displeasure over the faults they see in the regional power structure.

The City Council quashed the contract that would renew Atwater's membership in the Merced County Association of Governments (MCAG) because officials say the 10-year deal is unfair and want it revised.

It's the first city ever to leave the alliance since the association was founded 40 years ago. Whether it's the last remains an open question.

"There's absolutely no democracy in that agreement," Mayor Pro Tem Lesa Rasmussen railed. "It's an abomination."

MCAG spokeswoman Candice Steelman said that the association is willing to discuss the city's gripes, but added that it's unlikely the contract will be changed because it's already been approved by all the other cities except Livingston.

"We would like to continue to have a common voice on many regional issues and work for the common good," she explained. "Personally, I think it's very difficult for one city to accomplish everything it needs to by itself."

Because of changes in the contract, the alliance can remain together even without Atwater's involvement -- one of the alterations the city faults.

Under the last contract, Atwater would be delaying the association from establishing itself for another decade by not joining.

Rasmussen called the changes punishment for her city's questioning of the rules. "If you ask questions and consider changes, they call you a rogue city," she said.

Steelman declined to speculate about what Atwater's absence from the group could mean for future projects. However, unless the city votes to rejoin the alliance, the discussions about what roads need to be built and expanded will be lacking input from the county's third-largest city.

Though the city may not be part of the association, Rasmussen maintained that it would still be eligible for state money, adding that city staff is still looking at all the possible ripple effects.

Atwater's main beef comes from how the votes are divided among the six cities -- Atwater, Dos Palos, Gustine, Los Banos, Livingston and Merced -- and the county.

Every city has one vote on the 11-member board, while each of the five Merced County supervisors has a vote, which Rasmussen said swings the power toward the county.

Mark Hendrickson, the county spokesman, said the county thinks the current voting structure allows the interests of rural and city residents to be heard equally. "Considering the expansiveness of the county and its diversity of issues, it's important that we have representation for each person," he said.

City attorneys are reviewing the new contract to see if there are problems with changes or with the language.

Rasmussen said she wanted the council to discuss at its next meeting what they'd be losing by leaving the association, but the officials voted 3-2 to scrap the contract entirely. However, councilmen Joe Rivero, Nelson Crabb and Gary Frago voted against signing the contract Monday.

Steelman said the association studies traffic problems, pools money for projects and writes grants -- tasks that would be hard for cities to do alone.

Atwater's membership, which costs about $7,500 a year, expires at the end of November. The board is charged with developing transportation plans, including the Atwater-Merced Expressway. The alliance has used its unified voice to influence how the state spends bond money for roads.

Now there's going to be one less voice in that chorus.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209-385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com">sjason@mercedsun-star.com.