News that the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) is suing two of its own board members should surprise no one familiar with OID shenanigans over the past few years. Even after two long-tenured directors were booted out by an overwhelming majority last election, OID management and three remaining directors have stubbornly refused to change direction and face the realities of a new water world.
OID shares some of its problems with its neighbor, the Modesto Irrigation District. Both have a long history of providing abundant cheap but subsidized water to local farmers. Both are now under fire for failing to charge their farmer customers enough to pay for operation and maintenance of the district.
But when it comes to bungled plans and horrible public relations, OID is in a class by itself. Consider the following:
- When OID decided it didn’t like coverage by the Modesto Bee’s Joanne Sbranti, it hired a PR firm to provide favorable articles to the Oakdale Leader, which were then printed virtually verbatim, a clear violation of journalistic ethics.
- Back in 2014, OID proposed a fallowing program that would free up enough water for a sale outside the district. At the time, OID announced it would begin a required Environmental Impact Review (EIR). When it came time for the program and sale to begin, OID had not performed the review and was subsequently sued. When the program was halted, OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin admitted the district would have lost the lawsuit had it attempted to proceed with the program.
- Just a few weeks ago, a judge halted yet another OID fallowing program, again for failure to provide the necessary EIR.
- At least two OID Directors, Herman Dornenbal and Gary Osmundson, appear to have clear conflicts of interest in supporting the fallowing program. Though OID claims no conflict exists, both directors have the potential to gain much more from the program than many others in the district.
- Last year, OID General Manager Steve Knell admitted publicly the district had engaged in a secret water sale.
- Despite repeated failures to provide required environmental impact reviews, OID General Manager Steve Knell calls a Modesto Bee report, “stupid.”
OID’s two new directors, Gail Altieri and Linda Santos, pledged to provide transparency during last year’s election campaign. Both were elected by overwhelming majorities. They now claim that OID General Manager Steve Knell and other board members have kept them in the dark about details of the latest fallowing program.
OID Director Steve Webb has accused Altieri and Santos of contributing to a ruling against the district in a recent court case:
“The court case was going in our favor; every finding was for us, till you (Santos) and Gail decided to join the court case on the other side, then it seemed to shift a little bit,” said Webb last week.
Given OID’s past history, Webb’s comment seems like a classic case of shifting the blame. OID’s errors, omissions, secrecy, and arrogant dismissal of constituents’ concerns began well before Altieri and Santos joined the board and in fact were major reasons for the new members’ huge election wins.
The most recent ruling against OID is part of a pattern established by a district in deep disorder. Attempting to silence two recently-elected directors is nothing less than an attempt to subvert the democratic process. Altieri and Santos were elected because voters trusted them to provide transparency at OID. Now the district is trying to gag them.