Modesto Irrigation District directors scuttle talks on water subsidy

10/23/2012 6:15 PM

10/23/2012 11:48 PM

An anticipated off-again, on-again public discussion of the Modesto Irrigation District's fee policy favoring farmers over electricity customers is off again.

After a tense exchange among some board members Tuesday over information leaks, they decided against openly talking about the emerging controversy affecting 113,000 power customers to the benefit of 3,100 irrigators.

The board made headway on a related item, deciding that an advisory committee to look at irrigation system improvements will have seven members. The board expects to further discuss next week what it hopes the committee will accomplish, and by when.

That MID power customers have subsidized farmers is not new, although perspective on the inequity is becoming more clear. Each electricity customer will pay nearly $95 extra this year, for a total transfer of $89 million over 17 years, The Bee found in a review of budget numbers.

The charge fluctuates every year and is not itemized on power bills.

The issue erupted last week after The Bee reported on an internal legal analysis commissioned by the board suggesting that the transfer of wealth might amount to an illegal hidden tax.

The board had reviewed the August analysis behind closed doors, but chairman Tom Van Groningen said it would be unveiled and scheduled Tuesday's discussion. The item was removed from the agenda without explanation, then restored at Van Groningen's direction, to advance transparency.

But Tuesday, Directors Larry Byrd and Nick Blom pointed to rules on how items are placed on agendas — at the direction of a board majority, or three members — and determined that Van Groningen had assumed too much authority.

"This is just not right," Byrd said angrily, charging Van Groningen with manipulating procedure to get his way. Van Groningen apologized, saying he mistakenly thought the chairman could schedule items with the consent of General Manager Allen Short.

The board's contract attorney, Tim O'Laughlin, warned the board not to disclose what he called "privileged and confidential" information. He acknowledged that his advice "sounds strange because it is out in the public."

The analysis was provided by Bob Paris, a partner in O'Laughlin's firm. The Bee's repeated requests for information on Paris' compensation for the work, first submitted a week ago, went unanswered again.

Board members Glen Wild and Paul Warda stayed out of the dispute, but later in the meeting, Wild said it's logical to consider the subsidy when discussing how to pay for canal improvements. He said industrial customers — manufacturers and food processors — should be represented on the advisory committee because about 3 percent of their power bills goes to subsidize farmers.

"I would imagine (industry) would like to have a say in what their bill is," Wild said.

Van Groningen previously said the subsidy also was linked to the hotly contested idea of selling water to San Francisco, before it was dropped, because proceeds could have helped pay for system improvements.

But no board member voted against a motion to remove the item from Tuesday's agenda, and that ended the conversation.

Turning attention to the advisory committee, the five board members agreed that each will appoint one person and that the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and city of Modesto will provide one representative each, for a total of seven.

Byrd said the Chamber of Commerce's interests would be represented by the city appointee, and Blom said industrial customers could participate in committee meetings from the audience.

Van Groningen suggested that the committee start with a previous study on upgrades, including storage and capturing water spilled through inefficiency. The board will continue developing the committee's mission next week.

The MID board is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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