Oxnard Measure M trial nears conclusion

 

By William Westmiller & Deborah Baber-Savalla

Aaron Starr and Oxnard City may complete their arguments tomorrow.

Aaron Starr awaiting a previous Measure-M related court session. Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

After nearly two years of legal proceedings, the “Trial of Measure M” (City of Oxnard vs. Aaron Starr) could be concluded tomorrow, according to defense attorney Chad Morgan. The dispute over wastewater treatment rates will be in the hands of Ventura County Superior Court Judge Rocky Baio, who could issue a final ruling next week. Measure M resulted in a huge majority of Oxnard Wastewater ratepayers voting to rescind the 88% over 5 years increases imposed by the City Council in 201. For more details, read the linked articles below.

 

By Deborah Baber-Savalla– (Ed. note- this is just a brief synopsis from an attendee who wasn’t planning on reporting this). During  the morning on Thursday, January 4, 2018, defendant, local financial executive and Measure M initiator Aaron Starr was brought to the witness stand to testify.

Court got underway at 10:17. Members of the audience included myself, Mark Savalla & Oxnard Councilman Bert Perello. Shortly after proceedings began, Mayor ProTem Carmen Ramirez and another woman (ed. note- probably Asst. City Mgr. Ruth Osuna) arrived as did Dan & Barbara Pinedo. Also another fellow I’ve seen who either works for the city or is closely associated. By the time we broke for lunch at 12:03 another 4-5 people had joined the audience.

The first witness called was by the City and it was Aaron Starr. After confirming perfunctory details about certain documents such as “Is that your signature?” and “Does that appear to be a utility payment used as the basis for a refund claim “approved for Measure M” which seeks redress on behalf of all Oxnard residents for “illegal” fees over and above what claimant believes is true?”, the City began questioning Mr. Starr about the applicability of the numbers he chose to use.

They also established, for the record, that Starr was part of URAP (the Utility Rate Advisory Panel).  (Ed. note: More testimony on this Friday).

Basically I came away with the impression that there could be an opening for the City to successfully argue against Starr’s numbers because a)- he’s not an engineer or otherwise an expert on wastewater thus his decisions on what to include in his numbers is more arbitrary as items HE perceived as ones that should be included versus ones the City “experts” and their consultants identified. b)- That when discussing the relative lack of personnel the City had and their ability to perform adequate reviews of information to make a rate hike adjustment suggestion, Starr used “budgeted” personnel numbers which then Public Works Director Daniel Rydberg (testifying witness called by Starr/Morgan) said can be misleading since actual headcounts are more fluid. Thus budget headcounts don’t necessarily reflect the relative health/resource availability to the City when making decisions about the hikes.

 

By Bill Westmiller– On the afternoon of Thursday, January 4, 2018, the court heard testimony from former Oxnard Public Works Director Daniel Rydberg, who was instrumental in early plans for the large rate increase, voted down by 73% of residents in 2016.

Rydberg was quizzed about utility employment, maintenance and capital cost estimates that were used to justify the proposed 88% rate increase, to be imposed over five years. He testified that the City of Oxnard had postponed improvements and restrained rate increases over more than twenty years, leaving the utility with a large backlog of repairs and improvements. He indicated that new federal and state regulations had driven his estimates of future project costs, prepared in cooperation with several consulting firms.

Testimony ranged into technical issues about whether certain capital improvements were necessary or cost-efficient. Rydberg said he had determined that “membrane bio-reactor” systems were the best alternative to existing “sludge and chlorinate” treatments. He also expected new regulations that would require new equipment over the coming years. However, he was not involved in the financial estimates of the new capital expenditures that might be required.

Another witness, consultant Alexander Bugbee of Carollo Engineers, was asked about his stated skepticism regarding utility revenues and expenses. He deferred to the city financial office and didn’t do any independent analysis of the costs, though he used the numbers provided by the City in making a public presentation that suggested a large deficit. In an email to Rydberg, Bugbee said “I don’t want to be accountable for these numbers.”

Rydberg will be called back on Friday, January 5th to conclude his testimony. That could end the defense case, in anticipation of a final ruling from the court.

Measure M was defended by official initiative proponent Arron Starr, a local manufacturing financial officer, activist and sponsor of the recently qualified City Council recall petition. The recall will proceed whether Judge Baio rules for or against the City.

Plaintiff’s outside counsel, Holly Whatley, offered only a few follow-up questions to each of the defense witnesses. A sparse audience included several Oxnard City officials.

Prosecuting attorney Whatley had earlier claimed that if Measure M was ruled legal, the city would be required to return $6.8 million in revenues to ratepayers. Defense attorney Morgan offered evidence that it would be about $5 million.

The attorney summations are expected to use months of testimony to demonstrate that the rate increases are or are not justified.  Throughout the proceedings, attorney’s for both sides referenced thousands of pages of exhibits in four huge binders. Defense attorney Chad Morgan said that the “discovery” of working papers, reports, emails, and presentation materials totaled nearly 16,000 pages.

 

Watch for our upcoming article on the Friday, January 5, 2018 session.

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Some previous articles:

Busy day in court for City of Oxnard vs. Aaron Starr Measure M wastewater case

Busy day in court for City of Oxnard vs. Aaron Starr Measure M wastewater case

By George Miller –  Starr and City fight it out on the numbers, alleged harm to the city and Measure M financial justification On Friday, December 29, 2017, the City of Oxnard did battle vs local manufacturing financial officer, activist and Council recall initiator Aaron Starr. in Ventura County Superior Court, with Judge Rocky Baio presiding. […]

 

Standard & Poors downgrades Oxnard (again) | Citizens Journal …

citizensjournal.us/standard-poors-downgrades-oxnard/

Sep 29, 2017 – He also handed out this written statement summarizing his points highlighted from the report, which were NOT Measure M or recall-oriented: 1. …. the Aaron Starr Lawsuits Against Oxnard forMeasure M (35% wastewater rate increase rescission) and utility Infrastructure Use Fees If Starr wins ~ 1) The rating …

Aaron Starr Serves Oxnard with a Prop. 218 lawsuit … – Citizens Journal

citizensjournal.us/aaron-starr-serves-oxnard-with-a-prop-218-lawsuit-cupcakes/

Apr 5, 2017 – Editor’s note: At your service! Aaron Starr has Oxnard served with lawsuit and residents served with cupcakes simultaneously. He says that the City has violated statutes and multiple legal precedents making it settled law that a city may not charge utility “infrastructure fees.” Aaron Starr of Moving Oxnard …

Aaron Starr wins another round against Oxnard utility rate increase …

citizensjournal.us/aaron-starr-wins-another-round-against-oxnard-utility-increase/

Apr 15, 2016 – There are actually two cases: Oxnard vs Starr, to stop the initiative (Case 479-696) andStarr v Oxnard to compel the City to provide the title and summary to get the petition underway. An outside attorney for the City, Holly Whatley*, said there are legal precedents that a ballot initiative cannot deprive a city of …

Oxnard staff proposes 6 Wastewater rate increase … – Citizens Journal

citizensjournal.us/oxnard-staff-proposes-6-wastewater-rate-increase-scenarios/

Feb 14, 2017 – Assistant City Manager Ruth Osuna released 6 proposed wastewater increase scenarios to the Utility Ratepayers Advisory Panel (URAP) on Monday 2-13-17. The City (City management, Public Works and Finance) has been working on these since last fall, but the rate-setting process went into high gear …

 


William Westmiller is a retired radio-television news reporter and political commentator for multiple on-line news sites and lives in Oxnard

Deborah Baber Savalla is a former book publishing executive in New York City. She believes in moral clarity which leads naturally to personal responsibility which WILL RESULT in small government. 


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