Modesto Irrigation District plans a flurry of discussions

gstapley@modbee.comOctober 30, 2012 

— Openly addressing a list of potentially tricky topics could keep Modesto Irrigation District leaders busy into next year.

Board members Tuesday said they're concerned about public criticism on several topics including water and electricity rates, consultant fees, and the policy for destroying meeting recordings.

A recent flare-up over power customers paying more to keep farmers' irrigation rates low is to be thoroughly vetted at a public workshop, probably in January.

"Transparency is essential," said board member Paul Warda, who requested the workshop. "We owe it to the people, but it's very complicated and is going to take some explaining."

The district's 113,000 power customers each will pay about $95 more this year than it costs to provide electricity and have paid $89 million extra since the surcharge was adopted 17 years ago.

Last week, board members decided against publicly discussing a legal analysis provided by a contract attorney who said the hidden charge might violate a state tax law adopted by voters in 2010.

A public workshop, however, could better explain MID's rationale for the surcharge, Warda said. For example, farming advocates say irrigation replenishes groundwater enjoyed by everyone while farmers get nothing for it.

"The more people understand agriculture, the better off we all are," he said.

MID General Manager Allen Short said the workshop will help to "put out both sides of the story."

Last week, board members recognized that they have authority to schedule public discussions on whatever they want, with concurrence from a board majority. The revelation led to a flurry of requests Tuesday.

For example, Larry Byrd wants to rescind a policy known as the "Serpa rule," adopted with reference to former board member Mike Serpa before Byrd was elected last year. It restricts the board's ability to harass staff, but Byrd believes it also hampers helpful interaction.

Byrd asked to nail down whether the board secretary should answer to the board or to Short. And, Byrd said, he thinks the district should preserve meeting recordings for longer than the usual 100 days, "so people don't think we're hiding something."

Other board members want to flex agendizing muscle as well.

Chairman Tom Van Groningen wants to talk about Escalon's request to amend its 1996 permission for MID to sell power in parts of the city.

Van Groningen also wants the board to decide whether to pay an auditor to investigate payments to a business that hires subcontractors. Modesto resident Emerson Drake said it's difficult to track who gets what.

"I have complete faith and trust in our staff," Van Groningen said. But he would go along, he said, if other board members have suspicions similar to Drake's. Drake questioned whether the MID is getting value from an annual $20,000 payment to the Stanislaus Workforce Alliance.

"We might as well add it to the list," Van Groningen said.

Sensitive to criticism about the MID supplying power to Mountain House in western San Joaquin County and parts of Oakdale, Riverbank, Ripon and Escalon, Van Groningen suggested a public airing on that, too.

Last week, the board agreed to form a seven-

member advisory committee to recommend how to pay for irrigation system improvements, now that the idea of selling water to San Francisco has been dropped. Modesto — the MID's partner in a treatment plant — and the local Farm Bureau would supply a representative each, plus one designated by each of the five board members.

On Tuesday, the board agreed that the appointees need not live in the board members' geographic districts.

"I think we ought to consider the best person for the job," regardless of residence, board member Glen Wild said.

Further discussion on the committee, including a deadline for all parties to submit nominees, is expected next week.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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