Differences are stark between this year’s candidates for the Oakdale Irrigation District, a utility with a strong independent streak, an uncommon willingness – and ability – to sell river water to outsiders for big money, and frosty relations with some other agencies.
Incumbents Frank Clark and Al Bairos represent the establishment vote, challenged respectively by Gail Altieri and Linda Santos in Divisions 1 and 4. The women are not united on a slate but present similar charges of OID board arrogance and secrecy. Gary Osmundson, also an incumbent, faces a challenge in Division 5 from Daniel Medina, who did not participate in private or public debates and has not appeared to mount a campaign.
“Till now, we’ve trusted that the men in charge of our district were doing what’s best for the (people) in OID,” Santos said. She changed her mind, she said, when it became apparent that “they don’t want people to know what’s going on.”
An Altieri political flier promises to “end the good old boys’ club with transparency.”
Despite the drought, OID delivers generous water shares at among the cheapest prices in California. But challengers question the board’s honesty and business sense and claim that lapses warrant new leadership.
Clark and Bairos did not return calls seeking their views on OID’s recently announced $5.75 million sale to Fresno-area buyers, sending 3.7 billion gallons away despite heavy pressure from Stanislaus County leaders to bargain with locals. The district claimed a collaborative victory for fish interests and OID’s bank account, while Santos and Altieri accused leaders of forcing farmers to cut back while plotting in secret to sell the excess at season’s end, without a public discussion or vote in Oakdale.
I haven’t met one person in town or the country who is happy with what’s going on at the district.
Linda Santos, candidate, Oakdale Irrigation District
OID has reaped more than $50 million in outside water sales since 1999, enabling canal and equipment upgrades while drawing scorn from county leaders. Supervisor Jim DeMartini, for example, called OID a “rogue agency,” citing a history that includes:
▪ A decision to flout federal elections law by not resizing OID’s voting districts after the 2010 U.S. Census, concentrating a glut of urban voters in Clark’s imbalanced division.
▪ The board’s habit of dining at taxpayers’ expense while conducting no public business.
▪ Promising that OID customers would get all the water needed in dry years before selling any to a huge new almond company, then changing terms.
All occurred before Osmundson joined the board in April, replacing former board member Jack Alpers. Alpers had been ill and died Oct. 8.
The day after a Sept. 29 debate in Oakdale, Clark – enraged at comments made by Santos at the political event – called her names in an email to The Modesto Bee and suggested using a board meeting to debunk her. The district complied Oct. 6, staging a discussion to consider renewing offers to sell water to local agencies before deciding to hold off.
Altieri and Santos question plans for a new administration building and whether farmers were squeezed to sell water to raise money for the building. Selling to outsiders is made easier when OID pumps groundwater from wells, they say, jeopardizing neighbors.
“The (board) directors and general manager scared the bejesus out of farmers by telling us we wouldn’t get much water,” Santos said.
“Never to my knowledge has one single farm been harmed by the sale of water,” Clark countered, noting cash benefits to OID customers. “Not to sell it is pure stupidity, I’m sorry.”
My position would be to first keep any water sales local if there is interest and then branch out from there.
Al Bairos, incumbent, Oakdale Irrigation District
Bairos agreed, saying, “If we don’t do (water) transfers, we’ve got to increase taxes.”
Bairos first was appointed to the board in 2006 and has been re-elected twice since with no opposition. He said the district pumps for operations efficiency, keeping canals full in certain places to push water for better delivery to farms.
“There isn’t a farmer out there who wants to keep pumping and pay that electric bill,” he said. “We want to be good stewards. Once the water’s gone, we’re out of business.”
Clark, a former 10-year school board trustee, has served 14 years on the OID board. He “inherited a real mess” initially but the district has “come a long way” since, boosting reserves from $11 million when he started to $44 million now, he said.
“These are crucial times, and I want to be sure our water rights are protected,” Clark said. County leaders should have put a moratorium long ago on industrial wells pumping just outside OID boundaries, he said.
Groundwater pumping for the thousands of acres outside the district is absolutely unsustainable. ... It’s all about greed.
Frank Clark, incumbent, Oakdale Irrigation District
In his campaign eight years ago, Clark said he was “totally against selling water to San Francisco” because that city “wants it in dry years, when we need it most.” He and Bairos joined in the unanimous Aug. 20 vote in Manteca, by boards of OID and its partner on the Stanislaus River, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, to sell 23,000 acre-feet of water to the the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, whose many clients include the Westlands Water District of Fresno County.
SSJID affirmed the contract with a separate Sept. 22 vote in public. OID did not take a similar action.
Altieri described that as the latest “stunt” in a pattern of secrecy. Her platform rally cry is “honesty, integrity, transparency.”
Openness “doesn’t happen with OID,” Altieri said, railing on “negotiating behind closed doors” and calling for “fair, transparent and thoroughly discussed decisions.”
Altieri and Santos have called for periodic evening meetings of the board in hopes of increasing public participation, and Altieri wants all board meetings televised. Santos is incredulous that OID does not put background material for agenda items on its website and charges her to buy them.
At the board’s last meeting, Bairos formally requested that staff explore the idea of night meetings, and asked for discussion at the board’s meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday at 1205 E. F St. in Oakdale.
While OID directors and managers were aware of redistricting requirements, they chose to do nothing.
Gail Altieri, candidate, Oakdale Irrigation District
On redistricting, Altieri noted that OID leaders ignored the law, leaving the district she seeks to represent out of whack with others. “Certainly the residents of Division 1 are not getting the representation they deserve,” she added, questioning whether the board conspired to “benefit the incumbents.”
As of Sept. 24, the end of the latest reporting period, Altieri’s campaign had raised $4,787, including a $1,341 self-loan. Clark reported receiving $12,662, including a $3,000 self-loan.
Santos and Bairos did not file campaign finance forms, indicating they intend to spend less money than the minimum required for disclosure.
Santos agreed that the board and its lawyer “should be held responsible for violating the Voting Rights Act” and questioned whether OID “ignored the law to protect current board members.” Either way, they “failed to do their jobs,” she said.
If elected, she would push for better relations with the Modesto Irrigation District, whose canals could carry OID’s water to other local districts if the two agencies got along better. “We all need to be part of the solution and not the problem,” she said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
NAME: Gail Altieri
EMPLOYMENT: Retired educator
QUOTE: “Nothing really scares me.”
NAME: Frank Clark
EMPLOYMENT: Retired E.&J. Gallo Winery security director
QUOTE: “When you have more water than you can use, it is better to sell it than leaving it in (New) Melones and watching it go out to the ocean. Use it or lose it.”
NAME: Al Bairos
EMPLOYMENT: Owner, A&J Farms
QUOTE: “Water has a tremendous effect on our community’s way of life. I want to maintain and keep a healthy relationship between our district and its constituents.”
NAME: Linda Santos
EMPLOYMENT: Owner, Santos Ranches
QUOTE: “Because I have been deceived and lied to, now I question everything and I will continue doing so once elected.”