Electricity rates paid by more than 100,000 Modesto Irrigation District customers, unchanged since 2012, will not rise next year, the board indicated Tuesday in an annually anticipated decision.
In a wide-ranging meeting, the board majority also fired its lawyer and ended a controversial, high-level investigation indirectly related to a separate and previously undisclosed investigation of former employee Gary Soiseth, Turlock’s outgoing mayor. The MID board also rejected a claim by survivors of a Modesto city worker who was electrocuted in April on Floyd Avenue, and agreed to spend more than $8 million building a small reservoir east of Modesto.
An Oct. 23 board meeting featured fireworks after chairman Nick Blom revealed that he and vice chairman Larry Byrd had approved hiring an outside law firm to investigate whether the board, MID General Manager Scott Furgerson and others had broken the law while considering new work for Soiseth, who resigned in early September. Board member John Mensinger strenuously objected at the time, saying he and two others on the board — Paul Campbell and Stu Gilman — had been blindsided, and he demanded to know why they were being targeted.
Tuesday, emerging from a board huddle behind closed doors, Mensinger said he was designated to announce that the investigation announced by Blom had been deemed “not authorized.” Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, Mensinger had blasted Blom and Byrd and a letter sent by the investigating law firm, which threatened legal action.
The trouble stemmed, Mensinger said, from unidentified differences between Blom and Byrd on one side, and the other three board members on the other. “Rather than try to change our minds, (Blom and Byrd) opted instead to threaten and intimidate us by bringing up baseless, unjustified and undefined allegations,” Mensinger said. “I would disapprove of (Blom and Byrd) wasting the ratepayers’ money on politically motivated and unnecessary investigations.”
At issue were concerns about then-MID general counsel Ronda Lucas and advice she gave the board regarding, in part, “the district’s investigation of Gary Soiseth,” according to a letter from the investigating law firm to Mensinger, Campbell and Gilman, obtained Tuesday by The Modesto Bee.
Another MID staff attorney had refused The Bee’s Oct. 23 request for information regarding the then-secret Soiseth investigation, saying details were protected by attorney-client privilege and laws prohibiting release of personnel records.
Asked about the investigation, Soiseth, in an Oct. 30 email to The Bee, said, “I cooperated fully and the allegations were unfounded.”
Soiseth had resigned Sept. 7 from his job as MID’s regulatory administrator, but the district had considered having him continue as a full-time consultant.
Finishing his first term, Soiseth faced re-election last week and was in third place as of Friday with more ballots yet to process. According to incomplete returns, Soiseth obtained 29.2 percent of the vote, behind presumed winner Amy Bublak (37.2 percent) and former mayor Brad Bates (29.3 percent).
Mensinger, providing no details, on Tuesday also announced the termination of Lucas on a 3-2 vote with Blom and Byrd dissenting. Lucas had not attended board meetings on Oct. 23 or Tuesday.
The board said nothing about electricity prices Tuesday, but a report includes this line: “Staff won’t be proposing an electric revenue increase based on the proposed 2019 budget.”
The board has not raised rates in six years, since an attorney warned that doing so without holding a vote among customers might violate state law. A class action lawsuit alleging that MID illegally subsidizes farm water customers by overcharging electricity customers is pending.
Results of a study looking at relationships between power costs and benefits to various classes of MID customers are expected at a Dec. 4 board meeting. They include about 98,000 homes and nearly 13,000 businesses.
The new $441 million budget assumes $368 million in electricity sales plus income of $27 million from selling water to farmers and the city of Modesto, which mixes treated river water with groundwater before delivering it to taps of homes and businesses in Modesto, Salida, Empire, Grayson, Del Rio and parts of Ceres and Turlock.
In other action, the board:
▪ Turned down a request for compensation from family members of Tyrone Hairston, 30, who was killed while holding a street light pole that rotated and made contact with a 12,000-volt power line on April 8 on Floyd, near Roselle Avenue. MID “failed to shut off the power” while crews installed the pole, the family’s claim says. “MID was not given any prior notice from the city that they would be installing a light in this location,” an MID report contends, finding that MID was “not at fault and could have done nothing to prevent this accident.” MID expects to face a lawsuit in the matter, the report says. Hairston’s was the city’s first accidental workplace death, the city said in April.
▪ Agreed to move forward with plans for a 150-acre reservoir holding 265 acre-feet of water, southeast of Church Street and Milnes Road. The regulating pond will capture unregulated tailwater flowing from nearby Oakdale Irrigation District canals, and provide MID with more flexibility to keep its own canals at appropriate levels for deliveries downstream, officials say. The board approved environmental documents in 2016. If all goes as planned, the reservoir will be ready for the 2020 irrigation season.
▪ Heard comments from Hughson nursery owner John Duarte, who warned against making a deal with state water officials that would benefit San Francisco at the expense of MID and its sister district on the Tuolumne River, the Turlock Irrigation District. The districts and others in the Northern San Joaquin Valley are negotiating with state officials, who have threatened to force an increase in spring river volume, leaving far less in foothill reservoirs for farmers in summer and fall and potentially harming the regional economy. San Francisco also relies on the Tuolumne for much of its tap water. Former board member Jake Wenger also addressed the board, saying, “I know you well enough that if a deal isn’t good enough, you’ll tell them where to stick it.”
Modesto Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390