Challengers Gail Altieri and Linda Santos hammered at what they see lacking in district leadership, while incumbents Frank Clark, Al Bairos and Gary Osmundson defended what Clark called the best water agency in California during Tuesday’s debate among five candidates for three Oakdale Irrigation District seats.
Most stayed away from personal attacks, although Clark switched from defense to offense in his closing statement. He said Altieri “has a vendetta against OID,” blaming the district for wells going dry in her neighborhood, including her own, which Clark blamed on neighboring farms with deeper wells.
Altieri and Clark are facing each other, while Santos is challenging Bairos. Osmundson was appointed to the board in April; his opponent, Daniel Medina, did not attend the forum, hosted by the Stanislaus League of Women Voters.
Altieri and Santos said OID leaders are slow to share information and listen to customers. They questioned general manager Steve Knell’s salary, said OID used a pretext to annex megagrower Trinitas Farming two years ago and would support an independent audit.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I could get information on what’s going on,” Santos said.
Clark, Bairos and Osmundson said Knell is paid fairly, said they would annex Trinitas if they had it to do again, and noted that the district already pays a firm to conduct annual audits shared with the public.
“The more surface water (Trinitas) gets, the less groundwater they pump,” Bairos said. “That means a lot to local neighbors, to keep that aquifer up.”
All candidates said OID must protect its water rights at all costs and should look into building groundwater recharge basins. Altieri and Santos said the district should bring back night meetings to encourage more public participation, and the incumbents agreed that could be tried if there is enough demand.
All five said OID customers should get the water they require before shopping it elsewhere.
“I will not support outside water sales till local needs are met,” Altieri said.
She and Santos would consider selling water to area growers just outside OID’s boundaries, or to neighboring agencies, while the incumbents defended OID’s controversial practice of transferring large amounts far away for big bucks. That money pays for overdue upgrades, improving efficiency, Clark, Bairos and Osmundson said.
Altieri and Santos criticized the board for failing to re-size voting districts, as required by law, many years ago. Altieri questioned whether OID can legally defend the Nov. 3 election because its voting areas are out of whack.
Clark and Bairos said redistricting slipped through the cracks and noted that they hired a consultant to recommend changes. That was done after a Modesto Bee report outlined the problem.
Altieri and Santos said OID should explore creating a committee to review salaries.
Knell was paid $213,981 in 2013. By comparison, former Modesto Irrigation District manager Roger VanHoy made $218,764 that year, although his pay has risen since to about $238,000. But he stepped aside last week, and interim general manager Greg Salyer’s pay is $201,400.
“We have the best manager of any irrigation district in the state,” Clark said. “We pay him what he’s worth, and he’s worth every penny he gets.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390