Last June, the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) attempted to gag two newly-elected board members by asking that they be prohibited from voting on issues relating to OID’s fallowing program. Yesterday, Judge John Freeland slammed OID for the action, ruling it, “would essentially amount to placing handcuffs on Defendants’ ability to effectively operate as duly elected members of the Plaintiff’s Board of Directors.”
The ruling is just the latest in a string of humiliating defeats for a water district whose majority board members and management seem to have disregarded entirely their responsibilities as a public entity. Last year, OID General Manager Steve Knell admitted the district had conducted a secret water sale, and prior to that the district had to cancel a planned fallowing program for failure to observe protocols required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
Voters in the OID undoubtedly were looking for better communication and transparency when they elected Gail Altieri and Linda Santos by overwhelming margins. Nonetheless, both Altieri and Santos have claimed they’ve sometimes been shut out of OID’s decision-making process and left without sufficient information to do their jobs.
OID’s response was to charge both women with disclosing “confidential information.” The district also charged Director Linda Santos with a conflict of interest in an attempt to disqualify her from participating in discussions related to yet another lawsuit. Judge Freeland ruled OID’s claims about Santos’ conflict of interest were, “utterly unpersuasive.”
The judge also wrote that,
“In the court’s opinion there is serious doubt whether any ‘confidential information’ discussed in closed session was divulged by either of the Defendants. Even if Plaintiff had made sufficient showing that this occurred, the ‘confidential information’ allegedly disclosed has nothing whatsoever to do with the case brought against Plaintiff by Oakdale Groundwater Alliance and, arguably, either isn’t ‘confidential’ at all or could never be perceived as ‘confidential’ by persons not present.”
OID attorneys had argued legal precedents had been set for barring Altieri and Santos from participation, but Judge Freeland responded that, “The Court notes it was unable to find a reported case interpreting a fact pattern similar enough to that presented here so as to be helpful to its decision.”
No kidding. OID’s recent history of “fact patterns” would seem to be sui generis, except insofar as it caricatures notions like “old boys network” and “cronyism.” When a majority of board members of a public entity attempts to gag fellow members with trumped up litigation, it’s time for a new regime.
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.