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Residents of Stockton, a community of 250,000 in the heart of California's Central Valley have been battling for more than three years for a voice in the future management of their water system. At stake is the largest water utilities privatization on the West Coast -- a 20-year, $600 million operations contract with OMI-Thames to manage Stockton's drinking water, storm water and wastewater system. The contract is a first in the United States for Thames Water, the third largest water company in the world. Thames considers Stockton a showcase in their plans for taking over more municipal water systems in the U.S., where approximately 85% of the population is served by publicly owned and operated utilities.
But the deal has been fraught with controversy from the start, and the costs keep rising. An independent analysis of the contract dismissed the savings promised by the City's pro-privatization consultants and predicted the city would actually loose money in the long term.
In the summer of 2002, a local coalition took its battle directly to voters after their concerns were repeatedly ignored by city officials. The coalition collected over 18,000 signatures to place an initiatve on the ballot that would have given voters final approval over the contract. But in a devious move, the Stockton city council approved the contract just two weeks before the coalition's initiative was adopted by voters.
On August 1, 2003, OMI-Thames began operating Stockton's water utilities, against the public's will. But the fight was far from over and the next round was in court. On October 20, the San Joaquin County Superior Court determined that the City of Stockton illegally violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not conducting an environmental and public review. The ruling will likely send the contract back to the drawing board. And this time, the public should have its say.
"It's been a long fight -- first an initiative, then a referendum, and finally a lawsuit," said Sylvia Kothe, Chair of the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton, the leading plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the San Joaquin Chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Mother Lode Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Our goal all along has been to let people vote on whether or not to privatize their water system.
Now the court has taken a clear stand in favor of democracy, against the City of Stockton's illegal attempt to cut the public out of the process of governing our water. We hope cities around the country, and the world, will take note and think twice about risky privatization deals."
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