Right of referendum is at stake
The California Supreme Court has granted review of an important constitutional law case where Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association represents the taxpayers. In Wilde v. City of Dunsmuir the Court must decide whether local voters, using their referendum power, can force a water rate increase onto the ballot for their approval or rejection.
California is one of 23 states whose state constitution grants voters the power to referend statutes and ordinances. A referendum is a proposal to repeal a law that was enacted by the Legislature, a City Council, or a County Board of Supervisors, before it goes into effect. It is placed on the ballot by a citizen petition.
Ratepayers in the City of Dunsmuir collected sufficient signatures on a petition to qualify a referendum of a water rate increase. The City refused to place the referendum on the ballot, based on two theories: (1) that the referendum power does not apply to taxes, and water rates are a form of taxation; and (2) that Proposition 218, which reinforced the voters’ right to repeal or reduce fees using a different power, the initiative power, impliedly excluded the referendum power as a means of affecting fees.
The lower court had ruled in favor of taxpayers, ordering the City to call an election on the ratepayers’ referendum. By granting review, the California Supreme Court nullified the ratepayers’ victory below.
“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court considers this a debatable question,” said HJTA’s president, Jon Coupal. “Californians have possessed the referendum power since 1911, and this is the first time its exercise has been challenged in connection with the rates charged for a commodity.”
The City’s opening brief is due on March 1, 2019. If it is filed on time, then the Jarvis Association’s brief will be due on April 2, 2019.