Long-time readers of the Modesto Bee have known that for the last two decades, any time the Bee takes a position on an issue it also abandons objectivity and fair play. Thus, it was no surprise that when the Modesto Irrigation District’s (MID) proposed water sale to San Francisco was rejected, the Bee immediately began a campaign to get the sale back on the table.
The means the Bee has chosen to promote the sale is “a full and open discussion.” Those familiar with Bee-speak know “full and open” means “selectively edited, suppressed, and slanted.” Want examples? Here are two:
(1) During the height of the water sale controversy, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau sent the MID a letter saying the Farm Bureau believed the water sale was illegal because it violated portions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Farm Bureau cc’d the Bee with a copy of the letter. To this day, neither the Bee nor the MID has acknowledged the existence of the letter, most likely because they don’t want the public to know just how fraught with legal problems the sale really was.
(2) The Bee took the occasion of the publication of the now-notorious Falling Water Charge memorandum to harp on a hidden subsidy for farmers. The memorandum became an issue when The Valley Citizen made it available to the public. Though the Bee persists in characterizing the memorandum as revealing an enormous subsidy to farmers, the real story is that the memorandum strongly suggests that the MID has been guilty of sloppy accounting. If this is indeed the case, the Bee should not be assuming the Falling Water Charge went to farmers. Instead, the Bee should be asking where the 17 year total of $89 million was spent. And even if the money did go to farmers, why the secrecy and careless accounting for costs?
Some of the money may have gone to pay MID General Counsel Tim O’Laughlin. Recently, Eye on Modesto’s Emerson Drake revealed that O’Laughlin was on track this year to make a million dollars from his work with the MID. Contrast that with the salary of Stanislaus County General Counsel John Doering, who makes roughly one fifth that amount.
O’Laughlin, by the way, is on his way out at the MID. He’s probably realized that once the light of public scrutiny is turned on MID management, it will not only be bright but hot.
A recent Bee editorial suggested newly-elected MID Director Larry Byrd had attempted to suppress discussion of the Falling Water Charge at the MID’s last meeting—an ironic claim from an organization that routinely suppresses information it doesn’t like or approve of. In fact, Byrd and fellow directors Nick Blom and Paul Warda objected to Board Chairman Tom Van Groningen’s high-handed attempt to bypass Board rules and hand the Bee a story he knew would be spun to his advantage.
What the Bee has yet to learn from the water sale controversy is that it no longer has a monopoly on the news. During the controversy, the dozens of spectators at MID Board meetings soon discovered that Bee reports of what happened were often at odds with their own perceptions. They also learned that the Bee would sometimes omit information that might damage prospects for the sale or reflect poorly on Tom Van Groningen or MID General Manager Allen Short.
Those spectators now use other news sources as well as the Bee, many of them offering more accurate reports of local events than the Bee does. Athens Abell, Emerson Drake, and Carmen Sabatino follow local events closely and often feature information and viewpoints the Bee suppresses. Sabatino’s blogtalkradio show hosts a panoply of extremely well-informed guests including Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, Hughson nursery owner John Duarte, hydrologist Dr. Vance Kennedy, and more.
Current Modesto Bee management clings to a past when it could not only dictate the terms of discourse but also by default command the high ground of objectivity and fair play. That past is today an ever-diminishing image in the rear-view mirror, receding faster even than the speed of falling water.