When he learned it had conducted a secret water sale, Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini called the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) a “rogue agency.” Shortly thereafter, OID General Manager Steve Knell paid for two-thirds of the OP/ED page in the Modesto Bee to defend his actions. For reasons known only to themselves, Bee editors and management didn’t point out the space was bought and paid for.
Buying good publicity is just one of OID’s ongoing campaign tactics. In addition to paying Marcia Herrmann Design $160 an hour to spin OID business via press releases, OID Board Member Frank Clark spreads district money around town by donating to the many groups and clubs he belongs to. OID also provides water to district farmers at below costs of delivery.
Paid public relations and generous freebies can purchase lots of political support but they can also lead to the belief that image is more important than action. OID General Manager Steve Knell insists the district is run “like a business,” but nonetheless tends to avoid many of the most fundamental requirements of any business, one of the foremost of which is obeying the rules.
Earlier this year, OID had another water sale halted because it failed to perform required CEQA studies prior to the sale. In conducting its most recent water sale in secret, OID violated the spirit of the Brown Act and may well have violated the letter of the law as well.
OID Director Al Bairos is under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for violations involving campaign mailers. Director Frank Clark may also be investigated after he ran a newspaper ad without disclosing that it was a paid political advertisement. Neither board member has yet been found in violation of campaign rules, but it is telling that the FPPC is proceeding with an investigation of the charges against Bairos.
In isolation, any of these actions could be written off as careless errors. Add them up and they amount to a pattern of deception and a cavalier disdain for the rules and norms of civil communities.
Mr. Knell would like people to believe OID operates like a business. A more apt analogy is that it operates like a backwater fiefdom. Someone needs to tell OID directors and management that spinning the news and breaking the rules are indefensible, both in business and in public service.