When the Modesto Bee’s Garth Stapley reported that listeners erupted in laughter after Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) Board member Herman Doornenbal said, “We’re transparent….ask any question, we’ll do our best to give you an answer,” the incident illustrated perfectly the disconnect between long-term OID Board members and the general public. Doornenbal was speaking at a forum sponsored by the Stanislaus League of Women Voters on October 11.
Doornenbal’s audience broke into laughter because its members clearly knew OID’s claims of transparency are about as reliable as the Oroville Dam. After all, this is the irrigation district that conducted a secret water sale as recently as two years ago and routinely tries to circumvent requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
In a scathing editorial criticizing the water sale, Modesto Bee editors wrote of, “the disregard,” OID Board members, “have for the public that employs them.” The editorial also mentioned the efforts the OID Board made to, “hide its actions.”
In 2015, OID’s backroom dealing and penchant for secrecy were likely factors in election losses for incumbent board members Frank Clark and Al Bairos. Their opponents, Gail Altieri and Linda Santos, campaigned on platforms of honesty and transparency and won easily. Nonetheless, OID’s remaining incumbents and management never got the message.
In fact, almost immediately after the election, OID’s majority board members, including Herman Doornenbal, began a campaign to discredit Altieri and Santos and disenfranchise the voters who elected them. A recall effort was mounted against Santos, and when the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance (OGA) instigated a lawsuit against the district for failing to address environmental consequences of a proposed fallowing program, Altieri and Santos were accused of conspiring with OGA and barred from closed session meetings.
But on October 12 of last year, Superior Court Judge John Freeland ruled against OID. He wrote that OID’s attempts to prevent Altieri and Santos from participating in board activities amounted to, “placing handcuffs on Defendants’ ability to effectively operate as duly elected members of the Plaintiff’s Board of Directors.”
OID’s abuse of the public trust doesn’t stop with secrecy and attempts to “handcuff” dissenting board members. General Manager Steve Knell and board members Doornenbal and Steve Webb also routinely misrepresent facts, especially about water sales. Rice farmer Bob Frobose, who is an OGA member, says OID claims it has to sell surplus water or lose its water rights, but OID’s own attorney has advised that the only way to lose its water rights is by abandoning them.
In fact, OID does often abandon its water rights to facilitate sales to buyers outside the district. It does so to avoid Environmental Impact Reviews associated with the California Environmental Quality Act. Santos has questioned the practice and been rewarded with ongoing lawsuits and harassment.
While OID has every right to pursue a business plan that depends on water sales outside the region, it also has obligations as a public agency to uphold the truth and operate transparently. Anyone with even a casual interest in checking facts can see OID has failed to do so.
Bob Frobose says that OID’s ongoing pattern of secrecy and disregard for the truth amount to threats to the democratic process. “If people aren’t told the truth, then democracy doesn’t work,” he said recently.
With an election coming up for three seats on the OID board, Frobose and many others within the district are hoping OID can recover the public trust by electing directors who value honesty and transparency. Ironically, Herman Doornenbal’s laughable claim about OID transparency came the same day the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance was awarded $213,593 in attorney fees for prevailing in its lawsuit against OID.
In his ruling, Judge Roger Beauchesne said OGA had provided, “an important public benefit…specifically because it prioritized the availability of surface water for the local area.”
When a public agency has to be forced into providing public benefits by a lawsuit, the public itself needs to intervene. Voters have the ultimate responsibility for the agencies and institutions that serve them; if they can’t agree with Bob Frobose that democracy depends on the truth, then democracy is certain to fail, and, unlike Herman Doornenbal’s claims about OID transparency, the failure of democracy is no laughing matter.
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.