An exodus from the Modesto Irrigation District’s upper tier continues with the departure of Walter Ward, a widely respected water expert whose sudden retirement late last week caught many by surprise.
“It’s a real shocker,” Larry Byrd, vice chairman of the MID board, said Monday. Board chairman Nick Blom said, “I’m going to ask questions myself” at this morning’s board meeting.
The district is going through unprecedented turnover at all levels.• Of 411 employees, 20 percent were eligible to retire this year, although only a few did. Next year, 40 percent can retire; management expects to see 15 percent to 20 percent go.
• Three seats on the five-member board are up for grabs in open races on the Nov. 5 ballot, with no incumbent seeking re-election.
• Roger VanHoy officially has been general manager for only six weeks, although he has filled in since former general manager Allen Short retired under a cloud at the end of 2012.
• Ward’s exit brings to three the number of vacant assistant general manager positions, among four.
Ward, 58, was the most visible. The others appeared sporadically at board meetings, while Ward spoke from the podium at nearly every one, giving snow and rain updates in the winter and reservoir supply updates during the irrigation season.
“I’ve been thinking about (retirement) for a while,” Ward said Monday in a telephone interview from his Modesto home. “You could say I had an epiphany, a clarifying moment, and decided it was time to turn the page and move on to the next chapter.”
Ward said he has no immediate employment prospects. He and others said he was not asked to leave.
Tom Kimball, the district’s assistant general manager of transmission and distribution, is the only one left of Short’s four assistants. The board had investigated Short for an undisclosed reason last year, before his departure.
The district has been trying since June to fill a spot vacated by Lou Hampel, former assistant general manager overseeing finance, and hopes to wrap it up soon. Greg Salyer is acting assistant general manager of electric resources, VanHoy’s job before his promotion.
Ward graduated in 1973 from Grace Davis High School and attended Modesto Junior College, the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Wyoming. He worked public and private water jobs and was a supervisor in West Palm Beach, Fla., before coming home to Modesto and the MID in 1996.
He managed about 75 employees in the utility’s irrigation and civil engineering divisions and at a plant supplying Modesto with treated water for taps. Byrd said Ward had not applied for the general manager’s position when Short left.
“There are a bunch of young, talented guys coming up behind,” Ward said. “No person is irreplaceable. I wish MID great success, and I’m proud to have worked for them and served the community.”
Board member Tom Van Groningen, among the three stepping down after the election, recently asked for an accounting of vacant positions, including the mounting number because of retirements.
“Historically, 58 has been the magic number,” said Byrd, noting a drop-off in benefit incentives until an employee reaches 60, under rules applying to Ward and many others. “I hope the best for him. I mean that sincerely.”
The MID board meets at 9 this morning at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.