Welcome to the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors. Now buzz off.
That was the message delivered to new board member Stu Gilman during his first official meeting Tuesday. Three board members rejected Gilman’s request to give him a couple of weeks to digest new, 5-year contracts with MID’s three unions. By figuratively telling Gilman to get lost, three of the five board members were telling MID customers to do the same.
Board member Larry Byrd led the charge to shove through the new contracts without even a staff presentation.
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MID’s public employees are already the most highly paid in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, according to research done by Bee reporter Garth Stapley. He wrote in July that the average MID employee earned $91,000 a year.
Such stories prompted Gilman’s run for a board seat, which he won in November. He was sworn in Monday and attended his first meeting Tuesday. When he asked for more time to review the contracts, Byrd appeared to take offense.
Saying constituents trust board members to make these decisions, Byrd said employee morale required the board act now. Then he went too far, essentially saying it’s none of the public’s business.
“When you go out to the public on issues like this, which has never historically been done, you open a hornets’ nest,” he said before calling for the vote that approved the contract 3-2.
Well buzz, buzz, buzz.
Staff morale is important. But Byrd was elected to represent his district’s ratepayers, not staff – which includes his son.
But Byrd’s approach didn’t surprise us; he’s a retired MID employee and apparently still identifies with the staff. What did surprise – and disappoint – us was that board members Nick Blom and Paul Campbell went along, even skipping a staff show-and-tell before voting.
Since Gilman and board member John Mensinger weren’t given much chance to ask questions, we will. Did MID take into account:
▪ A possible electricity rebate. Gilman’s rate-cut promises notwithstanding, the real driver for rebates is a lawsuit in Redding. A ruling there for ratepayers would forbid a public utility from subsidizing one side of its business through payments to the other. That would likely force MID to rebate or refund some charges to electricity customers. How much will that cost?
▪ In their last contract, employees got raises of 2.5 percent in 2015, then 2.75 in 2016 and again in 2017. This new contract provides 3 percent each year for five years. Since roughly 185 MID employees earn $100,000 or (much) more per year, let’s use $100K as a baseline. The raises in the 2015 deal were worth $8,200. The raises in this contract hit $15,930 for those $100,000 employees. Whatever happened to graduated raises? Why five years?
▪ How many employees qualify for the new paid vacation level of 28 days after 34 years?
▪ The state is likely to demand that vastly more Tuolumne River water flow past Stanislaus farms to the state’s pumps. When that happens, MID must fight the water grab. Lawyers don’t work cheap.
▪ With less river water, the district – like its farmers – will likely pump more groundwater. Pumping is expensive. A recent state Supreme Court ruling could make it more so. The court said groundwater basin organizations don’t need anyone’s approval to charge those who pump from shared aquifers. One observer says this will mean large pumpers (like irrigation districts) will have to pay more than small pumpers (like homeowners). Is MID ready?
Negotiating teams get their marching orders well in advance, so it’s likely staff could have explained how MID will account for all these costs. Delaying the vote – or just explaining the details – would have provided a simple, common courtesy to Gilman. Then the contract might have passed on a 5-0 vote.
Refusing to delay a vote even a few days drew a line through the middle of this board. Gilman, Mensinger and 100,000 ratepayers are on one side. Where are the others?