From the very beginning, the Oakdale Irrigation District’s (OID) lawsuit against board members Gail Altieri and Linda Santos stunk of intimidation by way of litigation. It was thus not much of a surprise when Stanislaus County Judge John Freeland ruled OID’s claims amounted, “to placing handcuffs on Defendants’ ability to effectively operate as duly elected members of the Plaintiff’s Board of Directors.”
Among the more telling aspects of the case was OID’s failure to find legal precedent for its action. Judge Freeland ruled that the case it cited, Stewart v. City of Pismo Beach, was, “unhelpful in the extreme.” Freeland added that attempts to involve Linda Santos in a conflict of interest were, “utterly unpersuasive.”
Despite the flimsy case, OID spent several months and many thousands of dollars pursuing what amounted to “legal” harassment of its two newest directors, both of whom were elected by overwhelming margins.
Keep in mind that these are the OID management and Board who were caught red-handed in an attempt to establish a fallowing program and water sale without performing studies required by the California Environmental Quality Act. It’s also the same public institution that admitted to conducting a secret sale of public water.
Anyone who’s ever been involved in litigation knows it’s traumatic. It’s exponentially traumatic for people of modest financial means. Attorney’s fees can tick up faster than mileage on a taxi meter, and there’s never a guarantee of winning.
For ordinary citizens like Gail Altieri and Linda Santos, the prospect of litigation against a public entity is tantamount to stepping into a boxing ring against a team of heavyweight champions with both hands tied, yet they still had to pay attorney’s fees to defend themselves against their own board members and management.
For the very wealthy, attorney’s fees often represent a cost of doing business. For example, there was a time when developers routinely counter-sued environmentalists for raising concerns about the environmental consequences of their actions. The counter-suits became so common they earned an acronym—SLAPP—for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”
SLAPP litigation is illegal in California because it uses intimidation to deprive citizens of their First Amendment rights. To many, OID’s suit against two of its own board members looks very much like a SLAPP action, only the intimidating force in this case is a public entity.
But the suit against Altieri and Santos was just one volley in what looks like a strategy of disenfranchising those who voted for the new directors. On October 4, OID attorney Fred Silva sent a ten-page letter to Cort Wiegand, the attorney who defended Altieri and Santos. The letter claimed Santos had libeled OID management and board members in an email to residents of the district.
The email was sent in response to a recall attempt against Santos. In the email, Santos wrote that “OID’s long-time power brokers— including its upper management and board majority—do not like my probing questions or insistence that public business be conducted in public….They are pushing for my recall from office, based on false accusations, wild exaggerations and outright lies.”
Silva, speaking for OID, is demanding a retraction, in part because he claims the recall effort is entirely separate from OID’s attempts to bar Altieri and Santos from participating in some of the board’s deliberations. Whether or not OID has a case, Santos is faced with retracting statements made in the email or facing yet another lengthy and expensive round of litigation, and maybe both.
Linda Santos was a clear winner in her district campaign because people know her as honest and brave. She campaigned promising transparency. It’s not difficult to imagine promoters of a secret water sale wishing to bar her from their discussions.
Especially in the light of Judge Freeland’s comments about OID’s flimsy case against Altieri and Santos, OID management and board members should be wary of a courtroom decision involving Linda Santos’ right to free speech. And as things now stand, OID need not worry about libel by Linda Santos—it’s doing a fine enough job damaging its reputation on its own.