Tense talk at Merced Irrigation District board meeting sparks independent investigation

rparsons@mercedsunstar.comNovember 5, 2013 

— A tense discussion Tuesday during the Merced Irrigation District board of directors meeting was colored by name-calling between a board member and attendees. The meeting ended when the other directors ordered an independent investigation to determine whether any wrongdoing occurred regarding a proposal to spend public money on a private construction project.

The heated debate centers around a failed proposal for the MID to help finance construction of an irrigation pipeline on property owned by board member Kevin Gonsalves.

The proposal came before the board in July. Fearing a conflict of interest, the board ordered an independent legal review to determine whether they could consider such a project. The board received the legal analysis in September and the report confirmed that the board could not consider financing a construction project in which the “sole purpose is to provide water to the Gonsalves’ almond orchard.”

Tuesday, the board of directors voted to retain the law firm of Churchwell White LLP to investigate whether any wrongdoing occurred. Churchwell White also conducted the conflict-of-interest review.

A group of MID ratepayers, led by farmer Bob Weimer, called for an investigation into how the issue was placed on a board agenda in July. However, Gonsalves has denied playing any role in the request for financial assistance and accused MID staff of making the request secretly to “slander” him.

Dave Long, the board’s vice president, said the investigation should examine “actions that might have been inappropriate done by board members and report back to us with a recommendation as to how to deal with them.” Addressing the board Tuesday, Weimer said the public deserves to know how the issue was placed on the agenda and whether anyone from the MID staff was deliberately trying to “sully” Gonsalves’ reputation.

“But this now becomes a very serious accusation Mr. Gonsalves has publicly lodged against staff and makes us as ratepayers very uncomfortable, questioning the trust of the MID organization,” Weimer said in a prepared statement to the board.

Gonsalves on Tuesday first made a motion to strike the investigation discussion from the agenda, saying it had not been “properly agendized.” That motion failed, and Gonsalves then recused himself from the investigation discussion.

Gonsalves briefly sat in the audience before taking the public microphone and addressing the issue and Weimer directly.

“You have outright blatantly and in writing attacked me,” Gonsalves said to Weimer. “You are a bully. There will be an investigation and you’re going to be found wrong. You’re not on the board, Bob. Stop wasting the board’s time.”

Numerous people were laughing as Gonsalves walked away from the public microphone and someone called out to Gonsalves: “You’re an absolute nut job.”

Gonsalves’ girlfriend, Jennifer Bohl, shouted at someone in the crowd, “You’re a greedy bully.”

Earlier in the meeting, Gonsalves chastised board member Scott Koehn and MID attorney Phillip McMurray. Gonsalves accused Koehn of “attempts to slander me” and criticized McMurray, saying he violated attorney-client confidentiality. McMurray denied any violations of attorney-client privilege.

Board member Billy Pimentel supported Gonsalves and said some board members and ratepayers were making too much of the issue.

“I think there’s a vendetta here,” Pimentel said of the Weimer group. “I can’t prove it. We should just lay it to rest and get the business done.”

Gonsalves declined to comment after Tuesday’s meeting, saying his schedule was keeping him tied up for the day.

Others from the public, including Weimer, said the investigation was necessary to reinforce the public’s confidence in the MID staff and board.

There was no timetable for when the investigation might be completed.

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2482.

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