Privatization, the issue that has dominated debate at the Novato Sanitary District and fueled a bitter 2009 election fight, continues to incite controversy.

The latest dispute centers on the language of a June 8 ballot referendum on the district board's Sept. 21 decision to turn over operations of its $90 million wastewater treatment plant to Veolia Water. Earlier this month, the board narrowly approved the exact wording of the ballot referendum but drew criticism from dissenters on the board, privatization opponents and a environmental law firm that worked with the group on the referendum campaign.

"If the board doesn't change its course and adopt new language, it is most likely that we would file a lawsuit challenging the ballot question," said Catherine Engberg, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger of San Francisco, which sent the district a letter alleging that the wording violates state election law. "Our office believes that is pretty clear in the elections code as to what it should look like."

The crux of the dispute is whether voters will be confused by the way the referendum will be worded.


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The board, in a 3-2 vote, approved it to read, "Shall the Novato Sanitary District's approval of the contract entitled 'Novato Sanitary District Contract Service Agreement for Operations, Maintenance and Management of Wastewater Treatment Facilities' be repealed?"

Board President Mike Di Giorgio, who created the wording along with fellow board member James Fritz, said the language mimicked that of the petition that voters signed to get the referendum on the ballot. That petition, which was signed by more than the required 2,178 voters and submitted to the board, asked that the "approval of the contract be repealed by you or submitted to a vote of the people as prescribed by law to determine whether the contract should take effect."

Board member Bill Long, whose re-election to the board last November is the subject of a lawsuit that could force a new election for the seat in June, said the referendum was worded correctly. The election lawsuit is set for a hearing Monday in Marin Superior Court.

"If you signed it, you were in favor of the repeal, and now the question is should it be repealed," he said. "People understand that."

Novato resident and frequent board meeting attendee Norman Stone called the language confusing.

"If a resident is for the contract, they say no, and if they are against it, they say yes," he said. "So yes is no and no is yes?"

Board member Dennis Welsh, who led the campaign to oppose privatization and ended up as the top vote-getter in the 2009 board election, agreed.

"The language should be that yes means we want the contract and no means we don't want to contract," he said.

Board member George Quesada, who approved the privatization deal, backed Welsh in voting against the language.

"I don't care what the petition said," he said. "I agree with Dennis that yes should be yes and no should be no, and it should be clear to the public which is which."

But the pair couldn't sway their colleagues, and the language passed. The board delayed passing the overall resolution on the referendum, which means that the language won't be sent off to the Marin County Registrar of Voters until after it does that. Registrar Elaine Ginnold must approve the ballot language, and Engberg emphasized that her firm would take no action until that happens.

The board will take up the matter of the ballot referendum again on Monday. The resolution must approved by March 12 to secure a spot on the June ballot, and arguments for and against repealing the contract must be in by March 22.

The Novato Sanitary meets Monday to discuss a June ballot referendum on the district board's decision to turn over operations of its $90 million wastewater treatment plant to Veolia Water. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at 500 Davidson Street.


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

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