Political intrigue in Modesto Irrigation District races

gstapley@modbee.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Staff Photographer

TRACY BARBUTES / tbarbutes@modbee.com The Modesto Irrigation District offices in downtown Modesto, Calif., on October 10, 2011.

TRACY BARBUTES — Modesto Bee

  • DIVISION 2

    John Mensinger

    Age: 59

    Employment: American Lumber Co. president

    Website: www.electmensinger.com

    Carmen Sabatino

    Age: 75

    Employment: Mediterranean Market & Grill, retired high school teacher

    Website: www.carmen4mid.com

    DIVISION 3

    Paul Campbell

    Age: 50

    Employment: ServiceMaster Building Maintenance franchise owner

    Les Johnson

    Age: 80

    Employment: Central Bank, retired

    DIVISION 4

    Ted Donham

    Age: 59

    Employment: MID, retired; owner of Donham’s Bee Farm

    Website: www.yeeproductions.com/donham/home.htm

    Brad Johnson

    Age: 49

    Employment: Electronics technician

    Website: www.valleymedia.org

    Jim Mortensen

    Age: 66

    Employment: Del Monte Foods, retired

    Website: www.mortensenformid.com

    Jake Wenger

    Age: 29

    Employment: Wenger Farms

    Website: http://jakewenger.com

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

For the first time in decades, campaigns for a water and power utility might be generating more political buzz than other races.

Two reasons: militant controversy over important issues facing the Modesto Irrigation District in recent times, and an almost giddy hope for wholesale change.

In a few short weeks, a board seen by many as stodgy, slow to adapt and dysfunctional will get a new majority by sheer virtue of its new members, with three newcomers joining the five-person board. And the two holdovers – board Chairman Nick Blom and Vice Chairman Larry Byrd – are nearly wet behind the ears themselves, both having been elected only two years ago.

The basic demographic makeup of the MID board won’t change, as all eight candidates for three open seats are white men. But three open races with no incumbent? That’s nearly unheard of.

“I’m tickled to death that there is that much attention in these races,” said Ted Donham, one of the eight. “They are all quality guys. I tell you, that makes me feel like a winner already.”

He is in the most crowded race, along with Brad Johnson, Jim Mortensen and Jake Wenger, for Division 4, representing northwest Modesto and Salida.

The campaign for central Modesto’s Division 2 pits John Mensinger against Carmen Sabatino. Paul Campbell and Les Johnson are vying for Division 3, covering northeast Modesto and part of Riverbank, while Matt Innes has dropped out of that race.

All nine – or eight, without Innes – have experience running businesses, most of which appear to be successful.

Most have no political background. Exceptions include Sabatino, a former Modesto mayor with extensive campaign experience, having lost 12 races on four levels over nearly 40 years. Johnson serves with the sewer board and Municipal Advisory Council in Salida, both elected positions; he was an MID candidate four years ago before bowing out and endorsing Donham, who lost to Paul Warda, now departing the board.

Also stepping aside are board members Tom Van Groningen and Glen Wild. The latter is finishing his first term, while Warda and Van Groningen have served nearly two decades each on the MID board, previously known for stability.

The board’s troubles have been many, although things have smoothed dramatically since the departure of longtime General Manager Allen Short at year’s end. At times, he seemed to set direction more than board members, and they investigated him for an undisclosed reason just before he announced his retirement.

Near the end of Short’s tenure, the district wrestled with hugely unpopular projects, including a high-power transmission line, a solar energy plant, a biomass plant and the second phase of Modesto’s water treatment plant. Rancor boiled over when Short proposed selling water to San Francisco, an idea dropped last year.

Immensely important challenges still facing MID include the real possibility of losing substantial amounts of irrigation water to shifting state priorities for fish. The federal government could take more of the Tuolumne River as MID and its sister agency, the Turlock Irrigation District, apply for a new power license. And droughtlike conditions coupled with a sudden surge in well pumping for millions of new almond trees on the Valley’s east side threaten both agencies.

If that’s not enough, MID also will tackle the tricky question of whether electricity customers – nearly everyone reading this – should continue paying more to keep farmers’ water bills relatively low.

Board members serve four-year terms; the election is No. 5. Each candidate says he’s ready to take on the daunting challenges and lead MID to glory.

Division 2

Mensinger’s mother was Modesto’s first female mayor, a mountain Boy Scout camp was named for his father, and he has served in civic positions such as president of Modesto Rotary. But this is his first try for public office.

“The MID board has lost its way,” said Mensinger, president of American Lumber Co.

He says his analytical skills set him apart. He also hopes to bring MID, whose website offers no information on past board meetings and little data, into the modern age. And he wants to find ways to capture water that otherwise runs past customers and into the San Joaquin River.

Although Sabatino was mayor from 1999 to 2003, he paints himself as the anti-establishment choice. He reports balancing budgets and exposing a Village I public finance scandal, but as mayor he was criticized for taxpayer-funded trips, limousine rides, cellphone bills and golf rounds. He beat 10 unrelated felony corruption counts when jurors could not agree on a verdict in what he called a political prosecution.

While mayor, Sabatino escaped a judge’s order to repay $215,000 stemming from money he had borrowed from his mother, because state attorneys waited too long to collect. She died with taxpayers funding her care.

Sabatino has been a regular in the audience at MID board meetings, often approaching the speaker’s rostrum to criticize outgoing board members.

“When you want to help other people, you tell the truth,” he said. “When you want to help yourself, you tell people what they want to hear. I told the truth.”

Division 3

It’s too late to remove Innes’ name from the Nov. 5 ballot, but he said he’s too busy to campaign. He endorsed Campbell, who like his opponent, Les Johnson, never before has sought public office.

Campbell emphasizes a 24-year military career followed by business success despite the recession. He has little bad to say about the outgoing board or his opponent.

“I’m not doing this for me,” Campbell told Bee editors. “I’m doing it for the community. I could make a whole lot more money devoting my time to my business.”

Johnson says his 35 years as a banker, including responsibility for agribusiness loans, and experience growing walnuts and almonds would serve the board well. He has attended board meetings for at least a couple of years.

Although Johnson’s late wife worked 20 years in MID’s payroll division, he says he represents a true change in direction because his opponent was openly recruited by former board member Jeff Cowan.

“They need unity” on the board, Johnson said. “I think I can get along with the others.”

Division 4

Donham’s 33-year career with MID’s electrical side gives him unparalleled knowledge of its inner workings, he says. He’s not worried about speculation that a new state law could keep a pension holder from elected office at the same agency.

A recent survey of taxpayers bankrolled by an unidentified source was harsh on out-of-district water sales and most MID board members. Donham acquired results for a campaign mailer.

His answer for many district problems is reducing massive debt from what he considers ill-conceived projects.

“No one got to be a millionaire overnight,” he said. “For us, it’s ‘cut spending, tighten our belts and say no,’ and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Brad Johnson dropped out of the race four years ago but says he’s all in this time, having built a record of public service with two Salida agencies in addition to running a Salida-centric website and public radio station.

“I think the board really needs somebody with my level of ethics, integrity and natural inquisitive nature to ask the tough questions,” he said.

He bristles when asked about some key problems facing MID, saying most voters care more about their electricity bills and meters than talking points on abstract concepts like water sales or groundwater depletion.

“My neighbors are not knocking on my door saying we’ve got to do something about pumping in the foothills,” Johnson said. “That’s driven by big industry. I just want to put the public back in this public utility.”

Mortensen headed the district’s hand-picked volunteer task force charged with solving one of its most intractable problems – paying for badly needed canal improvements without selling the district’s soul to San Francisco. That six-month process provided an intimate view of what ails MID, as well as praise when the water advisory committee produced specific recommendations for righting the ship.

His most valuable contribution, Mortensen said, was getting the group to pull in the same direction despite strong opinions on many subjects.

“On a board, you need people who understand that you’ve got to move the flag forward to get to the top of the hill,” he said. “If you get eight of 10 things you wanted, that’s a pretty good deal. If you get five, at least you’re moving in the right direction as opposed to the gridlock we’ve got now.”

Wenger draws praise, even from competitors, for public speaking skills. He is the only candidate who is a full-time farmer. He is the son of Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, has amassed a wealth of endorsements and discusses in detail any issue facing the district.

He also is the only candidate running against his former 4-H club swine leader, which Donham was about 20 years ago.

“Age is a number; maturity is something else,” said Wenger, who will turn 30 three days after the election. “I’m absolutely qualified for the MID board. I grew up on canal banks and have been opening valves since I could turn them. I have more experience operating water systems than any other candidate up there. To point to age is a way to distract from issues.”

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

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