The beleaguered Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) got more bad news this week when attorneys for rice farmer Robert Frobose claimed OID had hired an engineering firm to address its redistricting problems without first soliciting competitive bids for the job.
Earlier this year, OID was found in violation of state requirements to change district boundaries based on updated census results. In response to the problem, OID hired CH2M Hill.
CH2M Hill is an engineering and consulting firm with a wide range of services. The firm has worked for OID for well over a decade. The notice from Frobose’s attorneys not only claims OID failed to put the job out for competitive bidding, it also alleges a conflict of interest based on the notion CH2M Hill can’t be impartial because of its long relationship with OID and prospects for future employment.
OID’s legal problems began earlier in the year when it was forced to abandon plans for a water sale because it had failed to perform an environmental review required by California Environmental Quality Act. The district has also had to deal with claims from district members it misrepresented an annexation agreement with Trinitas Partners, an investment firm with thousands of acres of almond orchards.
Frobose’s suit follows closely on another in which his attorneys charged OID of violating the Brown Act in connection with yet another water sale. Frobose is seeking to invalidate the sale based on the alleged violations.
Many of OID’s legal problems stem from a business plan that requires selling water outside the region to balance the OID budget. OID General Manager Steve Knell has suggested that OID’s failure to redistrict might have been caused by a focus on “financial challenges.”
Without water sales, OID runs millions of dollars in budget deficits every year. Expenses include purchases of infrastructure and proprietary software from Rubicon Water, an Australian firm that some say offers the most expensive equipment on the market. There have been rumors that some deals with Rubicon were also not subject to competitive bidding.
In addition to predictable overhead, OID is faced with a growing burden of unanticipated legal expenses. The district may be a victim of the kind of careless oversight typical when water districts attracted little public attention.
The four-year drought and new state mandates for groundwater sustainability have put water districts in the public spotlight. The attention has been unwelcome at OID, where two longtime incumbent directors were ousted in last week’s election, in part because their challengers claimed too much OID business was hidden from the public.
OID may be experiencing conditions similar to those that resulted in a tumultuous shakeup of the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) three years ago, when a proposed water sale drew public ire and scrutiny. The outcome was an entirely new MID Board of Directors and changes in MID top management.
Ironically, MID’s General Counsel at the time was Tim O’Laughlin, who didn’t survive the MID purge. O’Laughlin is now OID’s water attorney*. He’s kept a low profile during this year’s legal tumult, but must certainly be reflecting on MID’s recent history as he confronts OID’s latest legal problems.
*An earlier version of this story said Tim O’Laughlin is General Counsel for OID. Thanks go to a sharp-eyed reader for correcting our error. General Counsel for OID is Roger Schrimp.