Jeff Jardine

Lawsuit reversal doesn’t change power balance at OID

In Sunday’s Bee, longtime Modesto City Schools Board of Education member Cindy Marks opined that California needs more women in leadership roles.

Indeed, we’ve had women serving as mayors, on councils, boards, commissions and other posts. Kristin Olsen is winding down her six-year stint in the California Assembly and will be sworn in as a Stanislaus County supervisor in January.

“I’ve always said that women approach things differently than men,” former Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside said. “Men want to know who’s in charge and how much power (they possess). Women want to know what’s the problem and how do we solve it?”

That certainly seems to be the case in Oakdale, where Linda Santos and Gail Altieri – the first women elected to the Oakdale Irrigation District board – have endured character attacks, vitriol and lawsuits (one filed, the other threatened). They’ve been sued, booed and treated with behavior at meetings, by other board members and General Manager Steve Knell, that they claim is rude.

As new board members who beat incumbents by wide margins, Altieri and Santos came with the mandate to question the way the district does its business. Ultimately, that included plans to fallow land to sell water outside the district. They’ve accused the district of operating in secrecy instead of transparency, claiming they failed to receive vital information until literally moments before they were expected to vote on the topic.

Earlier this year, the other three – board Chairman Steve Webb and members Herman Doornenbal and Gary Osmundson, Knell loyalists all – voted to sue to keep the women out of closed sessions. They claimed Santos and Altieri “aided and abetted” the enemy in a separate lawsuit that challenged the fallowing program and that the pair had leaked information from a closed session. For 14 weeks, by virtue of a restraining order issued by a substitute judge, the district succeeded.

Armed with the allegations, critic and ratepayer Deanne Dalrymple in September began a recall effort against Santos. Dalrymple has until Nov. 10 to collect the 415 signatures needed to force an election. If successful, county election officials would then have 30 days to confirm the signatures.

But when the restraining order case returned to court last week, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John Freeland reversed the decision, excoriating the district for “what would essentially amount to placing handcuffs on the ability of (Santos and Altieri) to effectively operate as duly elected members” of the board.

Whether that has an impact on the recall petition signature drive remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Santos also has been threatened with a defamation lawsuit by a firm representing OID. It demands she retract what the district claims to be “untrue, libelous and defamatory statements” contained in a postcard she said she didn’t send and didn’t even see until one arrived in her mailbox. In an email in which she defended herself by asking recipients to talk to her first before signing petitions, she wrote “OID’s long-time power brokers – including its upper management and board majority – don’t like my probing questions or insistence that the public’s business be conducted in public.”

Interesting how an elected official can be sued by the agency she is sworn to oversee, ridiculed during meetings and targeted with a recall, but when she defends herself against the claims, she is threatened with another lawsuit for defamation. Meanwhile, she and Altieri are being forced to pay for their own attorneys’ fees while the ratepayers foot the district’s legal bills.

“That’s a form of bullying and intimidation,” said Altieri, a retired schoolteacher.

Enough is enough. The judge has ruled.

“Hopefully, this will settle down and we can take care of the district’s business,” Santos said. “Put an end to the childish infighting.”

Webb, Doornenbal and Osmundson all face re-election next year. Unless one or more of them loses to a candidate who aligns with Altieri and Santos, the men will remain in charge and in power.

The women know the problem. They are a vote shy of solving it.