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Former councilman's lawsuit threatens funding for projects

A former Petaluma city councilman who initiated two unsuccessful ballot measures to roll back sewer rates in 2008 and 2010 appears to have scored a victory, of sorts, by prompting the city to stop spending wastewater funds on certain activities which he claims are an illegal use of the money.

Bryant Moynihan, after recently making good on his promise to sue the city over alleged misuse of the ratepayers' sewer funds, seemed confident this week about his chances of prevailing in the case.

Moynihan has long railed against what he says is the city's excessive spending on the $114 million wastewater treatment plant that went into operation three years ago. His suit claims the city wrongly spent $4.7 million in wastewater funds on non-wastewater activities related to storm drain maintenance, without getting ratepayer approval.

Moynihan maintains that such activity is prohibited under Proposition 218, which passed in 1996. He wants the city to stop using the funds on prohibited activities, and return the money to the wastewater enterprise fund, which he says could possibly result in a lowering of rates for city residents and businesses.

"My goal was to get them to sit down at the table, stop these illegal acts, and start reimbursing the ratepayers," Moynihan said.

His disagreement with the city boils down to whether a variety of activities charged to the wastewater fund were actually related to wastewater, which Proposition 218 requires.

The city believes that some stormwater projects —like ones that reduce strain on the wastewater treatment plant by keeping stormwater out of it — are appropriate.

But the city seems to have conceded some points to Moynihan in its approval of water and wastewater rates this December. In that rate plan, which took effect this month, the city discontinued using wastewater enterprise money to fund activities it had previously been charging to that fund. According to City Councilman Mike Healy, about $500,000 worth of projects have lost funding this year as a result. Those projects include floodplain mapping that could affect flood insurance for residents of the Payran neighborhood and elsewhere, as well as environmental work that enables dredge spoils from the Petaluma River to be placed in the interior of Shollenberger Park.

The cash-strapped city must now try to find other ways to pay for these projects. The latter project is scheduled for approval at the Feb. 6 council meeting, though it's not yet clear how the city will propose paying for the work.

Both City Manager John Brown and Councilmember Mike Healy, a lawyer, said Moynihan seemed to be partially right, on what Brown described as "a technicality" around what applies as an appropriate charge to the wastewater fund.


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