Modesto Irrigation District general manager to retire

gstapley@modbee.comOctober 31, 2012 

— Allen Short, the Modesto Irrigation District's general manager for 19 years, will retire Dec. 31.

He was not forced out, Short and some board members said Wednesday, though they acknowledged biting public criticism in recent times and some dissatisfaction at the board level.

"I think it's probably time," board member Nick Blom said. "It's a good thing to get some change."

Short, 59, said, "I'm gratified at the work we've done, but it's time to do something a little bit different."

Despite his lengthy tenure and accomplishments, Short and his administration came under fire for ambitious plans to sell water to San Francisco, the botched construction of a water treatment plant to serve Modesto, delivering power outside the MID's core service area and steep electrical rate hikes imposed in recent years.

The most contentious issue was the proposal to sell water at a premium to San Francisco, an idea the board abandoned in September after months of public controversy.

No decision on replacement

The board has not decided whether to choose an interim leader from within the district or launch a wider recruitment, board chairman Tom Van Groningen said.

Short's annual salary is $240,507. He doesn't have a contract, negotiated no special separation terms and will be treated as any other retiring employee, he said.

Board member Glen Wild said, "Allen has been nothing but professional."

Van Groningen praised Short as "an asset to the MID."

Shielded by other board members, Short survived open animosity from former board member Mike Serpa a few years ago. But top-level support seemed to erode after Blom and Larry Byrd were elected last year. Byrd on Tuesday asked the board next week to consider changes in policy that would augment their power and restrict Short's.

The fifth board member, Paul Warda, said Wednesday: "He's entitled to his retirement. I don't want to say anything good or bad."

News of Short's retirement drew mixed reaction from inside and outside the district. Some praised him as a strong and visionary leader while others said he is a control freak.

"I wish him well," said John Duarte, a critic of the water transfer pushed by Short. "MID is due for a new generation of leadership and this is part of that transition," Duarte added.

Frank Clark, an Oakdale Irrigation District board member, said Short's retirement "is one of the things that had to happen for MID to move on. You just can't move on unless you make a lot of changes."

Proud of his work at MID

Short previously worked for the Stockton East Water District and was water division manager in San Luis Obispo. He became the MID's domestic water operations chief in 1990 and was chosen from among three dozen applicants as general manager three years later.

In an interview Wednesday, Short said he is proud of the water treatment plant the district built with Modesto. He also led an expansion of power service to parts of Oakdale, Riverbank, Ripon and Escalon as well as Mountain House in 2001 and 2002, championed delta fish studies and implemented wind and solar green-energy projects.

But shoddy work on the plant's second phase, costing perhaps $27 million, is giving partners a major headache. Public pressure killed plans for a 600-mile transmission line from Lassen County to Turlock and Santa Clara as well as a proposed wood-burning plant in Modesto, resulting in a $1.2 million payment to settle a lawsuit.

Contention peaked in recent months over the idea of selling water elsewhere with profits set aside to pay for much-needed canal system upgrades and improvements. The board backed down under intense fire, although some people are suspicious that the plan could be revived by an advisory committee yet to be formed.

The district also must resolve a policy flap over electricity customers paying more to keep farmers' irrigation fees low.

Short said he has contemplated retirement for a year and a half and likely would have left the district even if board support had remained strong. His wife is nearing retirement as well, he said.

"For a long period of time, there was not a lot of public input into board meetings and we were able to carry on the public's business in a very productive, efficient manner," Short said. "Folks now are very strident and have strong opinions on some issues. It does make it difficult and test and challenge your mental toughness. I try not to take things personally, but it does get exhausting at times."

Serpa said, "Hopefully this is a new era when the curtain comes down on backroom deals and MID can return to being a great asset for our community."

Board in transition

Blom said most companies rotate top executives much sooner than 19 years. He noted that the board also is undergoing a transition, with him and Byrd elected last year and Van Groningen and Warda saying they will step aside when their terms are up next year.

"My take is, I think it's a good thing for the district to have somebody come in with some fresh ideas," Blom said. With significant turnover at the top, "There is going to be a new MID, I think."

Short said he has not groomed an heir apparent and is not sure whether midmanagers would want to confront acrimony frequently heaped by critics. His successor will oversee 407 workers and a $446 million annual budget.

"I think it's always emotional when you leave an organization you've been with for an extended period of time," Short said. "You have fond memories of things you've been able to accomplish, people you've met, seeing employees grow and develop and the things we've done to benefit ratepayers."

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


ALLEN C. SHORT

AGE: 59

POSITION: General manager, Modesto Irrigation District

EDUCATION: Graduated from San Diego State University with degree in biology; master's in public administration from University of San Francisco

1978-85: Worked for Stockton East Water District

1985-90: Water Division manager, city of San Luis Obispo

MAY 1990: Became the Modesto Irrigation District's domestic water operations chief

SEPTEMBER 1993: Promoted to general manager; chosen from among three dozen applicants

CAREER HIGHS, LOWS

1993: The California Oregon Transmission Project is completed, which can supply electricity generated by falling water in Oregon and Washington to more than 1 million homes in Northern California. The 340-mile project is managed by the Transmission Agency of Northern California, of which Short is now the chairman.

1994: Water treatment plant opens at Modesto Reservoir, providing treated river water for use by Modesto households and businesses. Some farmers object to the project, but controversy wanes by the time the plant opens.

2001: Commits the MID to the Vernalis Adaptive Management Program, a large-scale, long-term (12-year), experimental/ management program designed to protect juvenile Chinook salmon migrating from the San Joaquin River through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

2001: City of Modesto and the MID begin talking about a second phase of water treatment plant

2001-02: The MID expands electrical service outside its territory to begin serving Riverbank, Oakdale, Escalon, Ripon and then the new town of Mountain House in western San Joaquin County

2005: Former Modesto City Councilman Mike Serpa elected to the MID board, starting a tense four years between Serpa and other board members and Short. In 2007, the board passes a resolution admonishing Serpa for bad behavior and warning him not to retaliate against staff. In 2008, the MID board adopts a code of conduct on a 4-0 vote, with Serpa abstaining.

2008: A large transmission line is completed between Westley and Rosemore Avenue in west Modesto to improve reliability for power. The project, planned since 2002, was delayed in part because Serpa refused to vote on the eminent domain proceedings.

JUNE 2007 to MARCH 2009: Short serves as president of the California Municipal Utilities Association

2009: Short is the chairman of the Transmission Agency of Northern California when landowners learn about a 600-mile transmission line planned from Lassen County to Turlock and Santa Clara. The controversy is so great that the MID and Turlock Irrigation District both pull out of the $1.5 billion project.

2009: Incumbents Tom Van Groningen and Paul Warda are re-elected to the MID board, along with Glen Wild, who defeats Serpa. All appear to be Short supporters.

JANUARY 2010: The MID board schedules a vote on electrical rate increases without giving customers information on what the increase would be. Power rate increases have been increasingly controversial, with the district blaming most of the increases on the state's demand for green power.

OCTOBER 2011: The MID pays $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit from a company that had planned to build a wood-burning power plant in the Beard Industrial District. The MID handled the environmental review process badly.

OCTOBER 2011: The MID announces it is considering selling water to San Francisco and starts holding public meetings.

NOVEMBER 2011: Two new board members are elected: Nick Blom, who beat incumbent John Kidd, and MID retiree Larry Byrd, who is openly critical of district management, including Short.

MAY 2012: The MID estimates it will cost $27 million to fix shoddy work on the second phase of the water treatment plant and sues firms involved in design, construction and oversight. A tentative settlement with one firm was reached this month, but details have not been provided.

AUGUST 2012: The board rejects a tentative agreement with a union that would have given MID employees cost-of-living raises that could total 12 percent over the next 2½ years, plus so-called market adjustments of between 3 percent and 34 percent. The labor union previously filed an unfair labor practice charge against the MID.

SEPTEMBER 2012: After months of contentious meetings, the MID board backs off the proposed water sale to San Francisco.

OCT. 31, 2012: Short announces his retirement, effective Dec. 31.

SALARY

RANGE WHEN HIRED: $115,000 to $125,000

2001: $162,126

NOVEMBER 2005: $217,800

MARCH 2010: $240,507

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