Whether Modesto Irrigation District officers broke the law while considering new work for former employee Gary Soiseth is the subject of an independent investigation launched by Board Chairman Nick Blom and Vice Chairman Larry Byrd.
Soiseth separately is running for re-election as mayor of Turlock. He resigned from MID on Sept. 7 as its regulatory administrator; the district considered having him work as a full-time consultant after he resigned.
Other MID board members said they were blindsided Tuesday by Blom’s announcement, and board member John Mensinger called it “a declaration of war” because board members, General Manager Scott Furgerson and unidentified “agents” of the district were singled out as targets of the investigation.
“I think your behavior,” Mensinger said to Blom, “and that of Larry Byrd is outrageous, it’s unacceptable and it’s a declaration of war on your three fellow board members, it’s a declaration of war on your general manager, and it’s a declaration of war on the majority of good people who work for this agency.”
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(In the video, Blom’s announcement comes at 3 minutes, 36 seconds. The blow-up involving Mensinger begins at 17:30.)
In an interview after the board meeting, Soiseth, 34, said he doesn’t believe he is a target and doesn’t know if anyone at MID acted improperly. He expects to do work for MID through The Gualco Group, the Sacramento-based lobbying and advocacy firm the district has used since 1999. The firm said Soiseth is a senior advisor to the firm.
Asked if the MID controversy has anything to do with his re-election bid, Soiseth said, “I’ve tried real hard to keep a firewall between my political life and my professional life.”
Furgerson had expressed his concerns to Soiseth about balancing the demands of Soiseth’s MID job and his political career, Furgerson said in an interview last week. Soiseth had talked about starting his own consulting firm, and registered a limited liability corporation called Central California Advisors with the California Secretary of State in May.
Furgerson said it was Soiseth’s decision to leave the MID. Soiseth has said he saw starting his own firm as an energy and water consultant as the next step in his career.
Soiseth’s annual MID salary was $132,579; working for MID as a consultant could have brought him up to $192,000 a year, or as much as $216,808 if he helped MID through a Gualco proposal, according to documents from a California Public Records Act request.
As context, Soiseth’s employment cost the MID $183,790 in salary and benefits in 2017, according to Transparent California, a website that tracks government employee compensation.
MID dropped the idea of hiring him as a consultant; Soiseth on Tuesday said he is not currently working on MID matters through Gualco, but expects he could be asked to help with issues such as an ongoing federal hydropower license. Furgerson said last week that Soiseth had done minimal work on behalf of the MID in his new role.
The Bee obtained MID records through a request originally filed by D.J. Fransen, publisher of TurlockCityNews.com.
Blom opened Tuesday’s meeting with the investigation announcement.
He and Byrd, on behalf of the district, had hired an unnamed, outside legal firm, Blom said, to look at whether Furgerson or board members violated law or district policy regarding a special meeting Thursday, and to see whether Furgerson “or any agents of the Modesto Irrigation District violated district policies and-or otherwise acted improperly or illegally in arrangements for the continued service of the former MID regulatory affairs administrator,” namely, Soiseth.
Mensinger called the announcement “extraordinary, astonishing and outrageous” and demanded to know why Blom felt something was done inappropriately. Blom said he hadn’t known why Thursday’s emergency meeting had been called.
A meeting notice listed the subject matter as “public employee discipline/dismissal/release.” The district has refused to disclose the action taken by the board Thursday.
California News Publishers Association legal counsel Nikki Moore said in an interview that when an elected body meets in closed session to discuss employee discipline, dismissal or release that involves a current employee. Moore said she would expect that after notifying the employee, the board should report out when it has dismissed an employee.
She said it can be more complicated when a board disciplines or suspends an employee. Those complications can include the severity of the accusations and whether the employee holds a high rank within the agency. But Moore stressed that the public is best served when public agencies disclose.
The Bee requested comment from Furgerson, whom Blom named in both areas of the probe. MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams responded with an email, saying, “We’re working closely with board members to understand and address their concerns.”