‘That’s a blatant lie.’ Rift on Modesto Irrigation District board grows deeper

Whether a majority of Modesto Irrigation District leaders are angling to part with some river water seems to be at the core of an increasingly bitter power struggle on the board.

“We do have a fractured board at this time, very fractured. We have a division here,” said board member Larry Byrd in the middle of a this week’s fireworks lasting about an hour. “Everyone in the room is wondering what the hell is going on.”

A few audience members joined the fray and accused the newly formed board majority of plotting to sell or transfer MID water from the Tuolumne River to other users, perhaps as part of the district’s crucial negotiations with state water officials. The state water board recently approved a proposal that would swell Central Valley rivers in the spring, leaving less in reservoirs for thirsty farmers in the summer and fall. MID and other water agencies have sued to block what’s locally called the state water grab, but negotiations could offset the decision or the lawsuits.

Speaking from the audience, Todd Sill, Ryan Honnette and Emerson Drake suggested that the new board majority had fired MID’s former lawyer, Ronda Lucas, to make it easier to transfer water elsewhere.

Idea resurfacing to sell water to San Francisco?

Drake suggested that certain board members are dismissive of women and said Lucas would not “allow a water sale to San Francisco.”

A 2011 proposal for such a sale brought heated objections from crowds of people, effectively forcing then-board members to abandon the idea in 2012.

On Tuesday, Byrd strenuously objected to being removed as MID’s envoy to a committee of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority charged with negotiating on behalf of various water agencies. Byrd had served seven years in that capacity and was not consulted before MID board chairman Paul Campbell appointed board member John Mensinger to replace Byrd.

Byrd and Nick Blom, both growers representing mostly rural areas, previously controlled board decisions, joined by Campbell. That changed when Campbell began siding with the board’s John Mensinger and Stu Gilman, who represent mostly urban areas.

A rift had formed in October, when Byrd and Blom launched an investigation of suspected illegal activity by board members, General Manager Scott Furgerson and other unidentified “agents.” Mensinger called the move “outrageous” and “a declaration of war,” and by November, the investigation had been called off.

At that time, a letter from the investigating law firm to Mensinger, Campbell and Gilman indicated that Lucas’ advice about another probe involving former employee Gary Soiseth was at the root of Lucas’ termination. Soiseth was then running for re-election as mayor of Turlock; he lost the race to Amy Bublak.

Shifting balance of power

The shifting alliance on the MID board became apparent in early December, when the urban representatives elevated Campbell to board chairman, with Mensinger as vice chairman; Byrd and Blom dissented.

Either Byrd or Blom had presided as chairman since Mensinger was elected five years ago, he noted. “Now you object to the fact that you’re no longer controlling everything and making every decision,” Mensinger said. “To make this (committee appointment) into some kind of massive issue is going a little bit crazy. ... The majority of the board will make decisions and run the agency the way we think it should be run.”

Campbell said Mensinger had asked for the appointment and Campbell agreed. To confer with Byrd would have violated the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law which prevents discussion among more than two members of a five-member panel outside of public meetings, on a given issue.

Byrd and Mensinger jousted Tuesday over Lucas’ termination, announced in November. Byrd said he and Blom had no idea why she was let go.

“When you say you had no idea, that’s simply not true. That’s an absolutely false statement,” Mensinger said.

Byrd retorted, “That’s a blatant lie, what you just said,” and audience members soon joined the bickering.

“If you want a war, fine”

“You think we’re just dumb farmers and ranchers?” said Sill, a Waterford-area man identified by the district as Byrd’s ranch manager. “It looks like you’re dividing this board and getting rid of legal so you can do some type of water sales. If you want a war, fine, we’ll have a war.”

Mensinger responded, “I’m not going to be bullied by you or anyone in this room.”

Les Johnson, who has attended board meetings off and on over many years and once ran for the board, said, “We don’t want to lose our water. We’ve got to get this board going again in the right direction.”

After Mensinger’s committee appointment was affirmed on a 3-2 vote, with Byrd and Blom again dissenting, grower Robert Frobose said the new majority had “spit on all of us. We own this district, not you. ... We’re going to play hardball and protect our water rights, what’s rightfully ours.”

Later, the board split again in a discussion about hiring an outside law firm instead of another attorney to replace Lucas as general counsel. The district spent about $3.5 million on legal matters in the past year, not counting money used to settle claims. Staff will gather information for a later vote.

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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.