Nearly two years after The Modesto Bee exposed the Oakdale Irrigation District’s failure to resize its voting divisions, and a little more than two weeks after civil grand jurors blasted OID for the same reason, the board on Tuesday gave a 4-0 nod to a redistricting plan that will not protect Gary Osmundson’s seat when he moves to a new home in a few weeks.
The stunning vote could change the composition of the deeply divided board, depending on the outcome of an unrelated recall election concluding April 25.
Osmundson’s pending move will leave Division 5 without a board member. That would neutralize power in an anticipated deadlock with two board members on either side, until they appoint someone to replace Osmundson – if board member Linda Santos keeps her Division 4 seat in the April 25 recall.
If Division 4 voters turn Santos out of office, Nate Ludlow – the only candidate to sign up – would succeed her. He is viewed as sympathetic to the existing power structure; if that bears out, the old guard would maintain control regardless of who is chosen to fill Osmundson’s spot.
A battle over Osmundson’s vacancy might be expected if voters retain Santos, as she and Gail Altieri would be loathe to go along with appointing someone whose views align with board members Steve Webb and Herman Doornenbal. The question might require a special vote of the people, or wait for the regular ballot in November, when Webb and Doornenbal also face re-election.
Osmundson attended to an emergency on his dairy farm Tuesday and did not attend the board meeting. His presence would not have changed the outcome, he said after, because his attorney advised him that voting on a redistricting option preserving the status quo could create a legal conflict of interest, so he had planned to abstain.
Although the issue seems settled, Tuesday’s vote must be confirmed after another public hearing in two weeks. Osmundson said he will review his attorney’s recommendation and likely will vote then because the redistricting option chosen Tuesday presents him with no financial advantage, erasing a potential conflict.
Before Tuesday’s vote, the board majority appeared to have an avenue for preserving control in the so-called Option 2, whose southern line between Divisions 4 and 5 were drawn to keep Osmundson’s future homesite within the district he currently represents.
In my opinion, Option 2 is a blatant attempt to gerrymander.
Gail Altieri, OID board, Division 1
“In my opinion, Option 2 is a blatant attempt to gerrymander,” Altieri said before the vote. She provided a definition: manipulating boundaries to give one party an unfair political advantage.
Two weeks ago, Option 2 also contained odd, noncontiguous islands and a weird peninsula – shapes frowned upon in courts. The proposal was since revised to clean up some odd shapes, but the revised version was not publicly released before the meeting, and revisions were not presented or explained to the audience before the board approved Option 1.
8,366People in Division 1, OID’s largest
4,307People in Division 2, OID’s smallest
6,430Ideal size, if OID divisions were balanced
Other agencies – including the Modesto, Turlock and South San Joaquin irrigation districts – resized internal voting divisions in years past. OID defied state and federal law by failing to take action after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, and uneven growth lefts its divisions wildly unbalanced; the population in one is 30 percent larger than it should be, and another, 33 percent smaller.
The Bee uncovered the foot-dragging in summer 2015, before Altieri and Santos were elected that fall. The Bee report showed that then-board members had been aware of redistricting laws, but OID General Manager Steve Knell recently told the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury that the agency “simply forgot.” He and the board must submit a response by mid-June.
Contacted by telephone, Osmundson said the redistricting vote will have no impact on his family’s intent to move to a home under construction, maybe in June.
OID doesn’t run my life. My wife, three kids and one goofy dog – that’s my life.
Gary Osmundson, OID board, Division 5
“OID doesn’t run my life,” he said. “My wife, three kids and one goofy dog – that’s my life.”
But Osmundson, appointed to fill a board vacancy two years ago, said he would consider running against Santos or Ludlow, or others, when that Division 4 seat comes up in 2019.
“Our water and our land, that’s very important stuff – nothing to play with,” he said. “I’m a young farmer, I’ve got bank payments to make for a long time and I’m going to want plenty of water for a reasonable price for a long time. That’s worth getting involved for.”
Recall ballots were mailed last week to absentee and mail-only voters making up 69 percent of Division 4; many already are voting. The rest can cast ballots before 8 p.m. April 25 at Life Community Church, 105 E. G St. in Oakdale.
Redistricting remains subject to a final board vote after a public hearing at 6 p.m. April 18, 1205 E. F St., Oakdale.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390