Oakdale Irrigation District ignores voting law

When population figures from the latest U.S. census rolled in a few years ago, most agencies adjusted their voting districts to make them equally sized, as required by state law every 10 years.

Some had gotten out of whack over the preceding decade because of uneven growth, births and deaths. A turn-of-the-century housing surge in the Village I area of northeast Modesto, for example, boosted its corresponding voting district 13 percent higher than it should have been by 2010, just two years after districts were created.

The City Council fixed the problem by moving voting boundaries by a few streets in certain areas. So did Stockton, Stanislaus County and scads of other agencies.

Irrigation districts, subject to the same reapportionment law, also resized their voting districts. One division in the Modesto Irrigation District, for example, had grown 28 percent larger than the MID ideal, so its board paid a consultant $27,650 to reconfigure voting lines, making the districts almost perfectly even.

Oakdale Irrigation District did not.

OID leaders were fully aware of the law, meeting minutes show. They said they would resize if numbers indicated they should. But when wildly uneven numbers were brought before them in 2011, the OID board chose to do nothing.

Four years later, remaining board members and OID General Manager Steve Knell have no explanation. Almost all said their memories are fuzzy; Al Bairos, who was board chairman at the time, could not be reached for this story.

Having reviewed related documents, Knell ventured a guess: The board, faced with financial challenges, may have elected not to spend money hiring a consultant to help reapportion, a priority that “probably didn’t sit high on the board’s agenda,” he said in an email.

Voting rights experts say no branch of government checks to see whether agencies follow redistricting law, and lawsuits are the most effective way to bring laggards in line.

How out of kilter are OID’s voting districts?

The state’s premier expert at suing to force government to get in balance looks for populations in a voting district that are 10 percent larger than another within the same agency. Even those with so-called plan deviations of 5 percent are vulnerable to his lawsuits, said San Francisco lawyer Robert Rubin, who won $3 million in attorney fees from Modesto City Hall in 2007 after the city lost California’s landmark case on voting districts.

After the 2010 census, the Merced Irrigation District looked at numbers in its voting districts, found a plan deviation of 7.7 percent and decided not to mess with them.

The Modesto city case prompted a sea change in local politics throughout California as hundreds of cities and school districts, including many in this area, converted from at-large elections to choosing representatives by geographic district.

“You don’t want people in one district having disproportionate power over another based on variation in population numbers,” Rubin said in a recent interview. “Smaller districts can exert more power with fewer people.”

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District – OID’s neighbor and partner, which gets an identical amount of water each year from the Stanislaus River – redistricted in January 2012, even though its district sizes were not as badly mismatched as OID’s; the new balance reduced SSJID’s plan deviation to 2.6 percent. MID and TID also rebalanced, in 2012 and 2011 respectively, producing plan deviations of 2.1 percent and 3.7 percent.

The OID board, meanwhile, acknowledged redistricting requirements in April 2011 but seemed unsure whether populations had shifted enough to warrant redrawing lines. They decided to check numbers of registered voters within each voting district – which the county registrar would provide for free – apparently as a low-cost alternative to pinpointing actual population counts, which might have cost an estimated $7,000.

“The board felt that if there were any significant voter number differentials, they might consider redistricting,” meeting minutes state.

Four weeks later, Knell returned with figures showing that one OID district had bloated to more than three times the size of another, and more than twice the size of a third. The plan deviation: 130 percent.

Minutes from that meeting say that the board discussed the matter with Knell, and did nothing.

8,611People in OID’s District 1

4,398People in OID’s District 4

And no one remembers why.

“I have no memory at all of that,” said board member Herman Doornenbal. “Maybe it slipped our mind.”

Steve Webb, the current board chairman, and Frank Clark said they don’t recall either but are inclined to revisit the issue.

“Apparently, staff dropped the ball and the board didn’t follow up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this,’” Clark said. “We need to comply with the law, no question.”

Webb said, “We’ll have to take a look at it and see if we can fix it. If it slipped by, we need to do it.”

Because voter registration and population counts can be radically different, The Modesto Bee enlisted help from UC Berkeley to produce population estimates for OID voting districts. The school’s Institute of Governmental Studies produced population counts used to compute OID’s plan deviation of 72 percent.

Clark and Bairos could be most affected by redistricting, as their terms in office are up in November. Clark said he will run for re-election; Bairos is out of the country, Webb said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

City dwellers throughout the district pay OID about $300 a year, included in their property tax. About half of OID’s annual property tax revenue comes from urban residents who receive no irrigation water.

In addition to equally sized districts, the law also prohibits voter discrimination. Agencies typically comb through demographic breakdowns to make sure, for instance, that Latino neighborhoods have a good chance at electing a Latino candidate.

Meeting minutes don’t reflect whether OID contemplated that four years ago.

“Not only are they disenfranchising people because they haven’t drawn districts equally, the other piece is they may be failing to give a minority population an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. The nonprofit organization advocates fairness for all voters and has been on the front lines of national redistricting reform.

A map showing voting districts on OID’s website indicates it was adopted 15 years ago and apparently updated last year to reflect the sparsely populated 7,234-acre annexation of nut giant Trinitas Farming being added to one of the districts.

Clark’s district includes nearly all of Oakdale east of Yosemite Avenue as well as expansive east Oakdale neighborhoods, and is more populated than the others. Taking a cursory glance at the online map, Feng said, “This suggests there may be intent to pack an urban population into a single district.”

Other agencies have taken very different approaches. Only landowners vote for Patterson Irrigation District candidates, for example, exempting its districts from the equal-population provision. But to keep with the spirit of the law, PID in 2013 adjusted its boundaries anyway.

Why are some agencies slow to follow the law?

“Power is not relinquished easily,” Rubin said, also noting that the redistricting process costs money that can be in short supply, especially with small special districts. “But I don’t know why a jurisdiction would risk a lawsuit,” he said.

Philip Ung of California Forward, a government watchdog group, said many special districts operate in relative obscurity, with little media attention and public interest. That can make them “able to go a long time without updating their districts,” he said, all the while flouting the law.

Doug Johnson, whose National Demographic Corp. has helped resize voting districts for many Central Valley cities and school districts, said no state enforcer checks for scofflaws. The most common remedy, he said, is a lawsuit.

Feng noted OID’s documented acknowledgment that its voting boundaries were out of whack. “It almost seems that they got the information back in 2011 and were purposely neglectful,” she said.

“Politicians up and down the state would love to keep lines exactly as they were when they were elected because that’s who got them into power,” Feng added. “But it’s illegal.”

The one-person, one-vote principle driving fairness in campaigns across the United States for 51 years will be challenged in the fall, when the U.S. Supreme Court will consider districts based on numbers of eligible voters rather than all people. The outcome could radically change voting rules at all levels of government.

The San Joaquin Valley, with its high concentrations of nonvoters, could be especially vulnerable. Forty-two percent of Stanislaus residents, for example, are registered to vote, compared with 59 percent in Marin County, 55 percent in Contra Costa County and 54 percent in San Francisco. In Merced County, 37 percent of people are registered to vote.

Knell said of the OID board’s 2011 mindset, “Looking back, that period was full of financial challenges.” Although the district has reaped more than $35 million selling water to out-of-county buyers in the decade before 2014, 2011 was the only year in that span with no such sales. Additionally, OID lost money by not being able to sell excess hydropower because of low electricity demand, and started paying for an expensive generator project.

Webb and Clark suggested OID will take action.

“If citizens are not represented because they’re outnumbered,” Clark said, “those things have to be corrected.”

Garth Stapley: (209) 578-2390