Privatization of the Novato Sanitary District's $90 million sewage treatment plant will go to voters next year.

The Marin County registrar of voters said Thursday that critics of the privatization plan garnered enough signatures of registered voters to put the issue on a 2010 ballot. The announcement came just five days before Tuesday's hotly contested election that will determine the majority of the five-member district board, which approved the privatization deal earlier this year.

Registrar Elaine Ginnold said organizers of the referendum obtained the necessary 2,178 signatures, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the district in the November 2006 gubernatorial election. The campaign, which was spearheaded by an opposition slate of three candidates for the board and the California Healthy Communities Network in Martinez, had turned in more than 4,000 petition signatures.

"We are very happy with what the people of Novato have done," said Dennis Fishwick, one of the three members of an opposition slate of candidates and a vocal opponent of the move to hand over operations of the plant to Veolia Water. "The voters will see that we can save money by keeping local control of the district."

The district board must now decide when to hold an election for the referendum. District Manager Beverly James said she will place the matter on the agenda for the board's next meeting on Nov. 9. That will be the first Novato Sanitary board meeting after Tuesday's vote.

"The district decides everything from now on," Ginnold said.

In doing so, the board must balance the desire to get voters to weigh in quickly on the issue with the cost it would incur by holding a special election. If the district held its own special election on the matter, it would face a cost as high as $250,000. That cost drops to around $175,000 for a special election by mail, and down to approximately $54,000 to get on the ballot in the June 2010 primary election or the November 2010 general election.

"There is always an interest in voters having a say," James said. "But I think it is going to be an expensive issue that the voters pay for."

Veolia took over operation of the plant Oct. 5. Earlier this month, the board unanimously approved a contingency plan that calls for the district to take back operation of the new plant and pay Veolia $40,000 per month as a consultant. That is how the plant would operate until the matter is decided by voters. The deal would cost the district an extra $800,000 for the next 12 months because it would have to pay both its own employees and Veolia, James said.

Incumbent Bill Long said he hoped the issue would go to the ballot as soon as possible and that he was confident that voters would overwhelmingly affirm the board's decision to privatize once they see the savings that would come with it. The board has long touted the district's determination that it would save $7.2 million over the length of the five-year contract with Veolia Water.

"I'm highly confident, and on top of that I think that the people who oppose contracting for these kinds of government services will end up with a big black eye over this," he said.

Although neither side has filed litigation yet, the matter could end up in court.

Attorneys for the district and the referendum campaign have a legal disagreement as to whether the privatization decision is subject to a referendum. Petition drives have 30 days after a vote to compile signatures. While the coalition behind the referendum said the 30 days began when the district board approved the Veolia contract Sept. 21, district counsel Kent Alm has said the clock should have started ticking when the board voted to privatize on July 27.

"I would hope that they would just rescind the contract (with Veolia)," said Phil Tucker, executive director of California Healthy Communities, whose organization has spent about $12,000 on the referendum campaign. "That way it takes the onus off of possible litigation. I doubt seriously that any court would injunct us from an election for any prolonged period of time."


Read more Novato stories at the IJ's Novato section.

Contact Jim Welte via e-mail at jwelte@marinij.com