Considering they’d been walloped by a court ruling the previous week, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell and water attorney Tim O’Laughlin looked surprisingly confident when they arrived early for Tuesday night’s special board meeting. They were preceded by rumors on social media and elsewhere that O’Laughlin would use Judge Roger Beauchesne’s decision as an excuse to deny water to out-of-district applicants for OID surface water.
Beauchesne had ruled that OID erred when claiming a proposed fallowing program and consequent water sale to buyers outside the region would have no negative impacts. Beauchesne agreed with litigants Robert Frobose and Louis Brichetto that OID should have provided more study of the program under guidelines established by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Knell’s confidence appeared to diminish visibly when he noticed CEQA attorney Osha Meserve sitting next to Frobose near the front of the boardroom. Meserve had been the chief administrator of OID’s courtroom beating. Her presence didn’t bode well for anyone hoping to reestablish OID credibility on matters of water law.
Things didn’t improve for Knell and board members Herman Dornenbal, Steve Webb, and Gary Osmundsen during the public comment that preceded agenda items. All were lambasted for a long series of alleged bad actions, ranging from bullying newly-elected directors Linda Santos and Gail Altieri to denying local applicants OID surface water while selling to out-of-region buyers.
Santos, who is the subject of a recall effort, had plenty of vocal support. Local businessman Richard Jorgensen railed at Knell and the board for accusing Santos of ethics violations when seeking truth and transparency and reminded them the judge had castigated them for the very fallowing program Santos had said she couldn’t approve.
By the time O’Laughlin spoke, anyone expecting a good night for OID management and its three majority board members had to realize prospects were dim. O’Laughlin himself seemed reluctant to get into the gist of his argument. Only after a very long preamble that included the obligatory shots at state government agencies did he launch into a weak-spirited warning that sales to local but out-of-district buyers could henceforth be subject to lawsuits and losses due to Beauchesne’s ruling. He did add that it would be to the district’s benefit to develop a long-range plan for local water sales.
When Osha Meserve took the podium after O’Laughlin’s presentation, she had already passed out a letter explaining why OID’s fear of litigation on local water sales lacked legal credibility. In fact, it appeared to many people that O’Laughlin had been basing his position on a false analogy.
When Meserve said, “I disagree with Mr. O’Laughlin,” the room seemed to echo with reminders of her recent victory in court. She assured the OID Board there was no threat of a lawsuit from her clients and offered her services should OID wish to devise a feasible plan for local sales.
After Meserve’s short but cogent rebuttal, Frobose again took the podium. In a withering broadside, Frobose said that many of OID’s problems stemmed from management lies. He asked pointedly how the board could attempt to punish Santos for telling the truth while ignoring patent management falsehoods.
He added that OID’s practice of abandoning water rights to avoid CEQA requirements could just as easily be used to keep water local instead of selling it to buyers from far away. He said that in light of recent courtroom history, OID Board members should question Tim O’Laughlin’s judgment on matters of CEQA law.
By the time Frobose finished, most of the air seemed to have gone out of OID’s remnant credibility. No one had spoken in defense of OID policy, and Meserve’s presence had proven a strong reminder of Judge Beauchesne’s support for, “each of the criticisms of the Negative Declaration.”
When the meeting adjourned for a closed session about the district’s suit against Santos and the prospects of an appeal to Beauchesne’s decision, it had become ever more evident that OID had little in the way of legal grounds for ongoing board water policy. And unless they can come up with better tactics than demonstrably false claims, ad hominem arguments and false analogies, the board majority faces a dim future of doubling down on dumb.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College.
He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and
wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.