City Councilor Kristin Szakos, Mayor Satyendra Huja, and Councilor Kathy Galvin were the three-person majority who took the controversial vote on January 17.
Bob Fenwick and Joanna Salidas talk of a "dam scam" while Erin Rose and Larry Bishop hoist a banner.
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Back in 2010, before changing his position, Charlottesville City Councilor Satyendra Huja predicted that wars would be fought over water, but he may not have realized that the battle would reach his desk. Last Friday, the dredger-turned-dammer and now-Mayor Huja found that he was on the receiving end of a lawsuit slamming his turnabout vote as illegal, wasteful, and "absurd."
The lawsuit filed March 23 in Charlottesville Circuit Court against four local bodies climaxes a multi-year struggle over a controversial plan to centralize local water supply in a massive reservoir to be built atop an existing one in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. Long before the legal action, the plan came under attack for taking a chain-saw approach to nature by consuming over 150 acres of mature forest and because the enterprise– launched by a government-fed group called the Nature Conservancy– will drive up local water bills while abandoning an existing gravity-fed water pipe in favor of a much-larger pipeline whose tens of millions in construction and ongoing electricity costs aren't included in the current capital planning.
"We feel this dam scam is Exhibit A for the kind of crony capitalism that has been pervading local government actions," said Bob Fenwick at a press conference announcing the suit. An engineer-builder with seven years in the Army Corps of Engineers, Fenwick joined fellow activist Joanna Salidas to announce that they were members of a new group called the the Charlottesville Open Government Alliance, which is raising money to support the lawsuit.
The person filing the suit is Belmont neighborhood resident Stanton Braverman, an immigration lawyer with offices in Washington and Charlottesville. Contacted later Friday, Braverman declined to elaborate on the suit.
"The thing speaks for itself," says Braverman, whose complaint alleges that City Council– in a 3-2 vote in January– unlawfully sold its three reservoirs long owned by the City thus forcing future generations of City residents to beg Albemarle County if they end up needing additional water. Key to the legal argument is whether a sale masquerades as a lease.
A January 10 written opinion by City Attorney Craig Brown dismissed the idea that the City has "sold" any assets and therefore the contentions advanced by Braverman that Council– under provisions of the state constitution and the city charter– must hold a public referendum and/or muster a super-majority of Council to legalize its action.
"I've studied the constitution," says David Repass, a retired college political science professor who watched the press conference. "The three Councilors and the other defendants violated these fundamental laws."
The suit– though also naming Albemarle County and its water utility– is expected to be vigorously defended by the fourth defendant, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority whose attorney, Kurt Krueger, bills over $500 an hour and hangs his hat at McGuireWoods, the Richmond-based powerhouse that has served as home to several ex-governors and other top officials. The Hook's legal analyst questions the wisdom of putting an immigration lawyer in charge of a complex issue that might reverberate all the way to the Capitol– if it ever gets that far.
"It's complicated because you have to legally and factually analyze every piece of this puzzle to see what it is," says analyst David Heilberg. "I guess you can litigate that, but a judge might not let 'em."
In recent weeks, the muddy bottom of the existing Ragged Mountain Reservoir has been laid bare as part of a draw-down to prepare the place not for dredging but for building the new reservoir. On Wednesday, March 21, the chief executive of Rivanna, Tom Frederick, told Charlottesville Tomorrow that he'd just inked the first part of a deal to spend $27 million to build the new dam.
A day later– and ironically on "World Water Day" when a local conference highlighted decentralized water solutions– Frederick found himself huddling with the Rivanna board in a multi-hour emergency meeting.
The result of the March 22 closed-door confab was a request for an expedited hearing on Rivanna's effort to borrow $31 million by selling bonds. As Frederick and his board know, lawsuits typically spook the bond market. Judge Cheryl Higgins immediately scheduled a hearing for April 19.
The bonds would produce $25.7 million for the dam, $1.7 million to fund environmental projects to "mitigate" the dam's damage, $2.1 million in reserves, with the remaining $1.5 million covering expenses and the fees for the underwriter.
The underwriter is Davenport & Company, a Richmond-based firm whose advice recently drew a lawsuit alleging that Davenport selfishly prodded Fluvanna County into borrowing that unfairly enriched the firm while costing taxpayers $18 million in unnecessary interest expense. In mid-March, the Fluvanna Supervisors voted their unanimous intention to appeal a month-earlier dismissal of the suit. When that happens, Fluvanna– like Stan Braverman– will face off against McGuireWoods.
One of the undercurrents of the water plan is the potentially corrupting influence of money. With an annual budget over $16 million and a five-year capital-spending plan topping $186 million, Rivanna's ability to channel cash has been causing concern for years.
One of the questionable aspects of the local water plan was Rivanna's decision to let one engineering firm scare the public away from dredging with Panama Canal-sized cost estimates and then step in to design a dam. While that company, Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming, eventually got thrown off the job after insisting upon a completely concrete dam, the dismissal didn't happen until the firm had reaped $3.9 million.
A more recent money question was raised by this reporter in a last-summer story uncovering myriad hidden financial connections between the water plan's backers, chief among them the Nature Conservancy. Ostensibly independent, the non-profit Conservancy relies on millions each year in government grants and holds a multi-million-dollar financial partnership with the same government agencies– the Norfolk Office of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality– that might have derailed its plan for Charlottesville. The Conservancy has also lured image-burnishing corporations into the mix.
Both American Standard, a prominent plumbing fixture company, and Nestlé Waters, the maker of myriad bottled brands, have promised million-dollar donations to the Conservancy's so-called "Freshwater Initiative," whose proposed dam-pipeline for Charlottesville is a centerpiece for a national model.
In an attempt to publicly derail criticism of corporate influence, Mayor Huja recently told citizens that the Conservancy never got the money from Nestlé. However, Nestlé spokesperson Jane Lazgin, tells a reporter that Nestlé followed through on its million-dollar gift.
Huja concedes that he reiterated erroneous information.
"But I don't see anything wrong with donations," says Huja. "It's legal to donate."
As for the lawsuit, it's "an unnecessary delaying tactic," says Huja. "We have had enough debate on the topic, and I understand that people don't agree with this, but we need a water plan for the future, and this is just delaying and costing more."