CLAREMONT >> The City Council took the next step in its multiyear battle to obtain its portion of the Golden State Water system.
Voters overwhelmingly backed a bond known as Measure W that allows the city to borrow up to $135 million to acquire the system, which serves more than 11,000 customers.
On Tuesday night the City Council unanimously approved a legal procedure which would pave the way for Claremont to acquire the system through eminent domain. The action was met with a loud applause from the more than 30 people that filled the council chambers.
“All of the issues brought forward by the public — over the course of three years and will (come out) during the presentation to the courts. I’m convinced that our case will prevail,” said Mayor Joe Lyons.
For decades, residents have asked the city to proceed with a takeover but efforts didn’t move forward until three years ago when water rates continued to escalate.
Councilman Sam Pedroza acknowledged Tuesday night’s action might be the biggest decision he ever makes on the council.
“I understand the implication of that,” he said. “It is beyond the years I’m going to serve on this council and it’s something that will impact, one way, or another, the future of this town.”
Pedroza said the council did not take the decision lightly and was doing it in the best interest of the public.
“We are asking to be the stewards of our most precious resource, for what it is, and that it’s just not a commodity like electricity that can be created and sold. This is something that can’t be created, so we have to as a community manage this precious resource,” he said.
Golden State has rejected offers from Claremont, stating its system is not for sale.
“This is a hostile eminent domain of a private water company,” said Julie Hooper, spokeswoman for Golden State Water Co., last week.
The city now has six months to file an eminent domain lawsuit, said Bevin Handel, spokeswoman for Claremont. Once the document has been filed with the court, the discovery period will begin, and Golden State would be required to release documents to Claremont. The water company can request any pertinent information for the case from the city, she said.
“If Golden State Water says ‘we don’t agree with that, and we want a decision from a judge on the right to take challenge’ then it could be several more months,” Handel said.
Once a decision is made, and if the judge finds the city has the “right to take” the water system, it would set off another legal process to determine the fair compensation for the system. Handel said it would be up to a jury to decide that figure.
Resident Randy Scott has been among the many residents vocal in the water takeover battle. Scott, who co-founded Claremont Outrage to inform residents about the water issue, said there zero consumer protection if Golden State retains ownership of the local system. Golden State’s prioritization is making a profit with little or not to no concern about the customers it serves, he said.
“Golden State we get it. This is going to be expensive, but your history has shown it will only be more expensive in the future,” Scott told the council. “Golden State has lied to us time and time again and provided us no reasonable path forward other than the need to pass a resolution of necessity.”
City Manager Tony Ramos explained some of the findings for local control of water system, including a long-standing public concern about escalating water rates. He also said Claremont made an offer of just compensation to Golden State, adding Claremont made reasonable efforts to purchase the water system.
Resident James Belna said it was foolish for Claremont to consider a move. He said Claremont should let another city, such as Ojai, go first.
“You have no way of knowing what you are doing to do tonight is going to be effective,” Belna told the council.
In Ventura County, residents in Ojai formed the organization Ojai FLOW and are engaged in a battle with Golden State to be annexed into the publicly owned La Casitas Water District. The group prevailed, but the verdict is under appeal about how to finance the move.
An attorney for Golden State Water told the council Tuesday night he sent the city a letter on Nov. 19 “setting forth a number of objections,” to the proceedings. He added there were several items in the report that has not been disclosed to the company or public.
A listing of an asset or property that use or useful in that it had not been disclosed to the public or vague of what information provided utility and financial operations.
But Claremont’s attorney disputed the comments by Golden State and Belna saying the city has followedall the proper procedures.
In making his decision, Lyons told the public that Golden State Water Company has not behaved well during this process, adding he doesn’t expect it to get any better in the near future.
“I believe it is our obligation, at this point, to ensure the future of Claremont’s water control to the city,” he said.