No group is holding a public debate allowing people to see in action the two candidates running in the Modesto Irrigation District’s only contested race on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Editors invited Division 4 incumbent farmer Jake Wenger and businessman challenger Stu Gilman to The Modesto Bee to hear their views on issues touching nearly everyone in these parts, ranging from MID’s recent billing changes to the alleged subsidy enjoyed by farmers at the expense of electricity customers.
Unsurprisingly, Wenger defended the board and its actions over his four years in office, while Gilman characterized MID as distant and uninterested in struggles of ordinary people.
People have no sense at all that the board is looking out for them on the ratepayer side. ... People don’t feel they’re paid attention to. The only thing they think of with MID is, `I write my check and I get my electric bill.’
Stu Gilman, challenger
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“There is probably a lot you and I would agree on” in different circumstances, Gilman told Wenger. “The problem is, a lot of people don’t think MID cares.”
Wenger agreed that under prior leadership, “everyone agreed that the culture at MID was broken and it was bad.” But “the cruise ship is turning,” he said, and, “I’m proud of the work we’ve accomplished.”
It’s true that MID seemed dysfunctional four years ago, when eight candidates ran for three open seats, and Wenger bested three opponents in the most crowded race. The board had wrestled with hugely unpopular proposals, including doomed plans to sell water to San Francisco and build a biomass plant and high-power transmission line, as well as a questionable investment in a solar farm.
I’m proud of the way were were able to handle the drought. Now we’re into the fight of our lives protecting our water rights, and I’m excited to be involved.
Jake Wenger, incumbent
It’s also true that things have smoothed considerably since. Wenger, 33, is pleased that the board has reduced debt and boosted reserves without raising electricity rates, while increasing farm water prices 70 percent.
But even so, farmers still pay only a fraction of what MID spends to deliver water. While campaigning door to door recently, Gilman, 60, said he ran across an older couple forced to tap a retirement account to pay their electric bill. MID’s electricity profit has been about $93 million a year since 2010, and the excess pays down debt, builds reserves and covers the farm water subsidy.
People love and support the agriculture community. ... But there is a difference between supporting ag and subsidizing ag.
Stu Gilman, challenger
“Everyone is tired of paying for the farmers,” said Gilman, 60. “People love and support the agriculture community ... But there is a difference between supporting ag and subsidizing ag.”
The balance of power on the five-member MID board always has tipped toward farmers. If Gilman were elected, nonfarmers for the first time would have a 3-2 majority. One of the nonfarmers, however – Paul Campbell – has sided with farm interests since his election four years ago.
It’s unfortunate that electricity “ratepayers felt they had no other choice but to sue to get honest answers,” Gilman said, referring to an ongoing class-action lawsuit challenging the inequity.
The case in on hold while another from Redding with similar elements awaits a decision from the California Supreme Court.
Wenger said the district’s true cost for providing water and electricity never has been verified. The board – historically loathe to separate the two – recently commissioned two consulting firms to produce separate calculations, he noted.
But if the Supreme Court finds that Redding’s approach violates state law – suggesting that MID also is in the wrong – Wenger would be the first to propose change favoring power customers, he said.
If it’s deemed to be unfair or illegal, the next board meeting there will be a change. It will be immediate and instantaneous.
Jake Wenger, incumbent
“If it’s deemed to be unfair or illegal, the next board meeting there will be a change,” Wenger said. “It will be immediate and instantaneous.”
Gilman also noted that MID pays more salary and benefits than other agencies in the region. While the MID board last month featured “a lot of self congratulations and happy talk” about the then-pending change in billing system, “the reality is it did not go well,” he said, “and a lot of people are very angry about it.”
Wenger said MID’s compensation is not outlandish when compared to other utilities. Regarding the billing change, “Looking back, obviously things were missed,” he said, adding that “you hear from people who had a problem,” and not from thousands who didn’t. MID has not threatened customers with late fees or shut-off penalties during the transition, he noted.
Gilman said he’s “astonished” to find that people almost universally “have no sense that they are the owner of MID,” a public entity as opposed to a private utility. MID needs to shed its ivory-tower image, he said – short on compassion while quick to disconnect power.
Wenger said he has spent more time with community groups than the four other board members combined. He answers telephone calls and makes house visits when needed, he said.
“I’m there to answer questions,” Wenger said. “That’s my job, to represent ratepayers in the district. If you have an issue, you have a resource.”
MID Division 4 covers northwest Modesto, Salida and Wood Colony. Board members John Mensinger and Paul Campbell, representing other divisions, are unopposed this year.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390