To City Leaders: Put Vista Ridge to a Public Vote — or Explain Why Not

To City Leaders: Put Vista Ridge to a Public Vote — or Explain Why Not

The following is an opinion piece submitted by a San Antonio Current reader. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the San Antonio Current or its parent company Euclid Media Group. 

While a supporting water rate hike required to proceed with the Vista Ridge pipeline contract remains on track for a critical November 19 City Council vote, city leaders have failed to respond substantively to questions about why the matter hasn’t been referred to the San Antonio and  Bexar County voters who would ultimately pay most costs.  Preliminary unconfirmed research indicates it’s likely that City Council, by a qualifying Council majority vote, could arrange such a ballot measure, while it may be too late for a voter petition-initiated referendum. 

There is no shortage of credible pros and cons concerning Vista Ridge, as many readers of news accounts over the last 18 months will note.  Conducting a public vote within the next several months to decide whether to proceed with the project and associated rate hikes would undoubtedly be costly and challenging.  This would be particularly so in the event of a “No” outcome, which would entail a payout of tens of millions of dollars to lead contractor Abengoa under contract cancellation provisions.  Yet a compelling argument can be made for why it would be a worthwhile and appropriate exercise of the often inconvenient democratic process, drawbacks notwithstanding.  And no rationale, compelling or otherwise, has apparently been offered by city leaders or SAWS justifying the lack of a referendum—despite a request to cough it up.  

A recent Request for Information (with a copy to Mayor Taylor and City Council) about the legal permissibility of a voter referendum on Vista Ridge yielded a telling if not unexpected reply from the City Clerk’s office.  The response said “the city is not required to respond to questions, but rather to produce documents responsive to the request for information,” a stock reply tendered by many public entities when responsive existing data is claimed not to exist.  While such instances of governmental selective mutism are hardly uncommon, the reply is informative to the extent it may show city leaders either negligently or strategically avoided inquiring about the allowability of a public Vista Ridge vote.   Is this simple high-handedness, or a more calculated if undisclosed strategy to avoid reprising a fate comparable to that of the twice-voted-down Applewhite Reservoir measure from over two decades ago? 

The 1991 Applewhite Reservoir south side water development project blazed a trail and set a precedent for the viability of voter referenda for large water projects locally.  Applewhite, with total projected costs in the $300 million range, pales by comparison and an order of magnitude relative to the estimated $3.4 billion Vista Ridge price tag.  Per the SAWS' website's historical chronology, "City Water Board [SAWS' predecessor] voted to sue the City over the legality of the election. Court action subsequently upheld the City's position and Applewhite construction was halted."  A 1994 redo of the referendum led to a narrow defeat comparable to that of the 1991 initiative.  Both the 1991 and 1994 ballot measures were enabled by qualifying voter petition drives.   

City leaders can accurately point to the lack of a similar petition initiative for Vista Ridge to force it onto the ballot.  While the public must accept some responsibility for “failing” to timely generate qualifying petitions under statutory Initiative and Referendum guidelines, Mayor and Council should arguably demonstrate the leadership expected of their positions to place an exceedingly costly and at least moderately risky venture before the voters. It should seldom be necessary for the public to engage in extraordinary legal arm twisting to get elected leaders to do the right thing.  San Antonians have often and generously supported big ticket, public-serving infrastructure initiatives at the ballot box—when a good case is made for them.  

By most accounts of Vista Ridge supporters, the San Antonio metro area is at least 5-10 years away from needing the water Vista Ridge would provide.  Urgency to move forward with a deciding November 2015 Council vote and not wait a few months longer is a matter largely self-inflicted by city and SAWS leaders.  It’s true that waiting until months later to decide  on Vista Ridge could lead to additional unbudgeted costs, contractual difficulties, or even aborting the project altogether.  But if the project (and indeed, Abengoa itself) is on the solid ground its supporters say they are, they should have no problem surviving the time needed for a public vote. 

Failing to refer Vista Ridge to a voter referendum would reflect either a faltering of municipal institutional memory or unwillingness by city leaders to apply past, valuable hard-won lessons.  Do San Antonians find either acceptable?  We may never know if Mayor and Council have their way on November 19. 


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