Six months ago, no one could have guessed the Modesto Irrigation District’s (MID) General Manager and General Counsel would be leaving under a cloud formed by a cascade of Falling Water.
Six months ago, no one would have predicted that a slow-talking cowboy from eastern Stanislaus County would take on Allen Short, Tim O’Laughlin, four MID Directors, and the Modesto Bee and prevail over them all.
Newly-elected Director Larry Byrd arrived on the MID Board like a truth-seeking missile. Within a few months he and a galvanized public had roiled MID waters into a tsunami that swept away virtually every vestige of what had once been one of the region’s most enduring troikas of political power.
Always able to rely on the support of the Modesto Bee, MID General Manager Allen Short and Director Tom Van Groningen were able to direct MID policy almost unilaterally for years. Together with MID General Counsel Tim O’Laughlin, they formed an axis of power that was rarely if ever questioned, even when they seemingly overstepped the bounds of their public charge to conserve and protect the region’s greatest resource.
Short, O’Laughlin, and Van Groningen promoted a series of MID moves that in retrospect look like a legacy of fiscal error and poor judgment. Probably the worst was the decision to extend electrical service into the Mountain House district, but what ultimately brought them down was the proposal to sell water to the city of San Francisco.
Even though they had carefully cultivated support from the Bee and many of the region’s political and social power brokers, Short and company were unprepared for the outpouring of opposition to their sale plan. Their strategy of presenting the proposition as a mere “drop in the bucket” of the MID’s total water allotment convinced no one outside their inner circle, probably because too many people knew that the MID’s massive debt couldn’t be covered by the sale of a mere 2,000 acre feet of water per year.
Then there was the problem with Byrd. Try as they might, Short and Van Groningen couldn’t intimidate him. Their usual bluff and bully tactics didn’t work. Byrd just kept asking questions, and his thirty-five years’ service as a Modesto Irrigation District employee gave those questions increasing gravity and impact. Within a few short months, Byrd’s lone voice had become a 3-2 Board majority and Short and O’Laughlin were out.
As Short and O’Laughlin exit to the tune of Johnny Cash’s, “Five Feet High and Rising,” they leave behind a tangled legacy of problems, not the least of which involves mysterious methods of calculating the now-notorious Falling Water Charge, a hidden fee for electric ratepayers that may also be ruled an illegal tax.
Tom Van Groningen must now face an angry crowd of critics by himself. It won’t be an enviable task because more problems are certain to come out now that Short can’t control access to MID records like he has in the past.
And while it might be tempting to keep piling the blame on those who led the MID into the current morass of problems, it’s more important to start seeking a way out. Larry Byrd and his fellow directors are going to need lots of help.