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 email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
ALLEN C. SHORT
CAREER HIGHS, LOWS