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Former Modesto Irrigation District attorney claims discrimination in lawsuit

MID general counsel Ronda Lucas. Photographed Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Modesto Irrigation District building in downtown Modesto.
MID general counsel Ronda Lucas. Photographed Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Modesto Irrigation District building in downtown Modesto.

The Modesto Irrigation District’s former attorney is suing the utility, alleging that she endured sexual discrimination and gender-based harassment that male managers weren’t exposed to before she was fired in November.

John Mensinger, the only board member named as a defendant, “would snort, interrupt (Ronda Lucas) and shake his head as if she was speaking nonsense,” says the lawsuit, dated Feb. 14 and filed in Stanislaus courts by a Roseville law firm. Lucas believes Mensinger’s “hostile treatment was substantially motivated by the fact that she is a woman,” the lawsuit says.

In an email to The Modesto Bee, Mensinger said, “I have a personal belief that women are the equal of men and are capable of doing any job. I learned that from my own family.” His mother, the late Peggy Mensinger, was a city councilwoman and mayor of Modesto from 1973 to 1987.

Mensinger denies discrimination

“I am not guilty of discriminating against Ronda Lucas because she (is) a woman,” he continued. Although neither he nor MID had been served with the lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon, Lucas had filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a lawsuit precursor, and Mensinger said of its allegations, “in my view they are not an accurate representation of events.”

Lucas’ sudden departure as MID’s general counsel has been fodder for speculation at board meetings, which have been punctuated with vitriol in recent weeks. State regulations prohibit officials from publicly discussing personnel matters, but people in the audience have thrown about accusations, sometimes joined by board members.

For example, audience speakers in January accused the new board majority of sacking Lucas because she opposed the idea of selling water to outsiders.

Lucas’ termination roughly coincided with a power struggle that shifted control from farm-based directors Larry Byrd and Nick Blom to the new majority of Mensinger, Paul Campbell and Stu Gilman, who represent mostly urban areas. Campbell and Mensinger now are board president and vice president, respectively, and Byrd has publicly complained about board-level malaise infecting the utility.

Lucas’ lawsuit says MID’s male managers received higher raises and were treated professionally, as were male attorneys brought in from outside firms to help with certain tasks.

Screaming and fist pounding alleged

In a small, private meeting at MID in May, “Mensinger began screaming at (Lucas), reached across the table, slammed the table with his fist, called her ridiculous, cut her off while she was talking, and was generally dismissing and aggressive toward her,” the lawsuit says.

In August, Lucas complained about “discriminatory treatment” to then-board president Blom in front of two witnesses, both members of Lucas’ legal staff, the lawsuit says. MID’s policies require a “thorough investigation” of such complaints, but she never was contacted, the document says.

Because Lucas had complained about Mensinger, he should have been barred from having “any input into personnel issues involving (Lucas),” but “it was clear (that her) termination was based on inaccurate information submitted by Mensinger,” the lawsuit says.

Lucas’ complaint brought retaliation instead of help, says the lawsuit, which seeks lost wages and benefits as well as unspecified special damages.

The Modesto Bee in November reported that the board argued privately about advice Lucas gave the board on an investigation of former employee Gary Soiseth. At last week’s board meeting, Byrd said Soiseth — holding down a full-time job as MID’s regulatory administrator while also serving as Turlock’s mayor and running for re-election in the fall, as well as farming nuts in two counties — “simply wasn’t showing up to work” at MID.

On a 3-2 vote with Byrd and Blom dissenting, the board majority last week decided to seek a law firm to handle MID’s legal affairs, instead of hiring an in-house attorney to replace Lucas. Outside representation should save money, the board majority said.

The vote means laying off remaining members of Lucas’ in-house legal team. Byrd said there were three.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.