Lawsuit against city set for trial

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A lawsuit between five residents and the city of Denton over a 2010 petition goes to trial in March unless a Denton district judge agrees in the next few weeks with motions for summary judgment.

Charles Orsburn, attorney for the resident group, filed a motion Wednesday, asking the court to find with the plaintiffs, who had hoped to force, through petition, an election on a new city utility credit and collection policy.

Jerry Drake, deputy city attorney, said the city has also filed a motion for summary judgment, but a hearing on those motions has not been scheduled.

“I don’t know that anything is going to be proven out of it [the case],” Drake said. “I think both sides are hoping to get this wrapped up.”

The controversy began with a city policy change in November 2010 that charges customers utility deposits based on their credit history. Previously, the city charged a fixed amount for deposits — one amount for residential customers and another amount for commercial — in order to turn on the power and receive other city services.

Under the new policy, the city can offer deposit refunds to customers after a year of prompt payment. Customers with a history of late payments are required to pay an extra deposit equal to two months of their average annual bill in order to keep service.

According to court documents, the city collected nearly $1 million in deposits in the first months of the program after it went into effect in January 2011.

Orsburn said his clients were concerned that the city, by collecting deposits, and holding the money without paying interest on it, has effectively borrowed capital from the city’s working class.

“That’s not acceptable to my clients,” Orsburn said. “They thought the city ought to have an election to have the voters determine that.”

The group, which included Christopher Peterson, Carolyn Phillips, Keith W. Brown and former city council candidates Mike Sutton and Hatice Salih, began circulating a petition soon after the policy was adopted and returned to the city with the paperwork a month later.

In January 2011, the city secretary wrote a letter to the group saying she could not certify the petition, saying that it was not timely and did not contain enough signatures.

The group wrote to state and federal officials in early 2011, claiming that the city, in denying the petition, had violated the voting rights of those who had signed it. Then, in June 2011, the group filed suit, claiming that the city secretary did not follow provisions in the city charter for referendum and initiatives.

Drake said the petition did not meet the charter’s requirements.

The staff briefed the City Council last year, saying the new collection policy has proven effective. Since it went into effect in January 2011, Denton has had 28 percent fewer delinquent accounts each month and has seen a 48 percent reduction in uncollected debt.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is pheinkel-wolfe@dentonrc.com .


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