We’ve devoted a lot of space on the Opinions pages in the last two years to the Modesto Irrigation District, whose elected and staff leadership has been mired in conflict and confusion.
Arguably, the three open MID board seats are the most important positions at stake in the Nov. 5 election. All will be filled by newcomers because the incumbents are not running, and the new directors will join two men who have only been in office for two years. It is an unprecedented turnover for a board long known for its stability.
The five current directors are often at odds, and 3-2 votes are commonplace. Even when the votes aren’t divided, there’s an undercurrent of mistrust, and it centers on this: Who pays for the cost of providing water to 3,600 small and large farmers whose industry is No. 1 in our county and whose benefits reach far beyond the orchards and the fields?
Electrical rates have risen substantially over the years, while the price of irrigation water has been kept artificially low. There are two results of that: The electrical side of the public utility is subsidizing – a term that some hate, but is accurate – the water side, and improvements to the canals and water distribution system have been postponed too long
Paired with these are two new issues: Vast new orchards that are depleting the groundwater supply and the fact that the state water board is demanding that large amounts of water be released down the Tuolumne River for fish – and with no remuneration for the MID or its partner, the Turlock Irrigation District. The question is not whether the water will have to be released but how much will have to be sent downstream.
The question of whether to sell water to San Francisco, which some are trying to make the focus of this campaign, is outdated compared to some of the larger, more pressing issues that will face the MID board in the coming years.
Those issues include: How does the MID keep electrical rates competitive and phase out or at least reduce the practice of having power customers subsidizing the water side of the operation? How does the district upgrade its water distribution system to reduce spill, aka waste, and what does it do with that conserved water? Should it be sold to east side farmers to replenish the groundwater that has been depleted by vast pumping for new almond orchards and, if so, at what cost?
None of these issues can be resolved quickly. They will need to be deliberated by smart people willing to listen, study, analyze and, inevitably, make some compromises.
Based on these challenges, our thoughts on the individual races:
Carmen Sabatino, 76, who has run for office multiple times and served one term as Modesto mayor from 1999 to 2003, and Modesto businessman John Mensinger, 59, are vying to replace one-term director Glen Wild.
Sabatino’s tenure as mayor and his years as sideline activist have been characterized by one common theme – stirring the pot. During his term as mayor, the council meetings were sarcastically referred to as “the best show in town,” a description in which Sabatino seemed to take pride. Modestans tired of it, and Sabatino was trounced when he ran for re-election. He regularly harangued the man who replaced him, Jim Ridenour.
This is Mensinger’s first try at public office, but he has a strong record of civic involvement, including on the Sister City organization and Rotary. His leadership kept his longtime family business, American Lumber, afloat through the recession that took down many firms, especially those related to construction. Mensinger is analytical and suggests, for example, that the MID needs to find a way to serve the small irrigators more cost efficiently rather than tripling their rates.
Mensinger would bring an intelligent, deliberative style to the board and has our strong endorsement in this division.
There are three names on the ballot but only two active candidates to replace Tom Van Groningen. Matt Innes has dropped out of the race and endorsed businessman Paul Campbell, 50, over retired banker Les Johnson, 80.
Campbell was encouraged to run for the MID because of his business experience. While he has a lot to learn about the district’s complex operations, we believe he is the stronger candidate. Campbell spent 24 years in the military before moving to the Valley to work for and later start a Service Master franchise that now employs more than 100 people.
Campbell is emphasizing the need for MID directors to work together and suggests that the ramifications of not working together are severe. That attitude will be essential for the board to become functional again.
Four men are in this race – Jim Mortensen, Jake Wenger, Ted Donham and Brad Johnson – but this has shaped up as a contest between Mortensen and Wenger.
Both are knowledgeable about the district but come from different perspectives. Wenger, 29, is a farmer who has been attending meetings for several years as a likely candidate. He is perhaps the most articulate candidate in this field, no doubt the result of years of public speaking and presentation experience with the FFA.
Mortensen, 66, has an agribusiness background; he worked for Del Monte for 36 years in positions that dealt with water, air and electricity issues. Perhaps most important, he was named to the MID Water Advisory Committee and then selected from within to chair it. That committee, appointed in the wake of some painfully divisive MID board meetings, put together a package of recommendations that the divided MID board liked in concept and is reviewing for implementation.
We were impressed not just with the output of the committee but its thoughtful deliberations. The kind of leadership that Mortensen provided on the committee is the kind of leadership that MID needs. Wenger has potential in the long run, but we see Mortensen as a seasoned leader who is the stronger candidate today.