Two elected Oakdale Irrigation District board members – frozen out of some closed-door meetings by the board majority for 14 weeks – have every right to attend and participate, a judge decided Thursday in a remarkable reversal.
State law “does not support what would essentially amount to placing handcuffs on the ability (of Linda Santos and Gail Altieri) to effectively operate as duly elected members” of the board, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John Freeland said in the ruling.
Sufficient grounds do not exist to impose the broad preliminary injunction sought.
John Freeland, Stanislaus Superior Court judge
Three others on the deeply divided five-person OID board had taken the extraordinary step of suing to bar Santos and Altieri from private strategy sessions on another lawsuit facing the district. Santos and Altieri crossed a line by providing statements to the opposing side in the other case, helping turn momentum against OID, attorneys for the board majority had argued.
Another judge sitting in for Freeland agreed and issued a restraining order against Santos and Altieri on July 1. They since have been locked out when board members Steve Webb, Herman Doornenbal and Gary Osmundson privately discuss a lawsuit challenging OID’s fallowing proposal.
The fallowing program would have paid farmers volunteering to idle some land with money from proceeds of selling freed-up water. It never got off the ground because OID didn’t get clearance from state and federal regulators, and a third judge also said OID erred by not addressing environmental questions such as how shipping Stanislaus River water to outside buyers might affect the groundwater table here.
They switched sides to help the opposition. ... Altieri and Santos placed OID in the untenable position of having to discredit them – two of its own board members – in order to defend itself.
Fred Silva and Kathy Monday, OID attorneys, in court briefing
Attorney Fred Silva, representing the board majority, argued Thursday that Santos and Altieri “exhibited a bias” by aligning themselves with those suing in the fallowing case. Santos and Altieri were on the short end of a 3-2 vote in March adopting the fallowing proposal and wanted “to try to challenge that outcome,” Silva said.
“OID has a right to defend itself without concern that their strategies might be leaked to the other side,” he said.
The attorney for Santos and Altieri, Cort Wiegand, contended that his clients only got mixed up in the fallowing lawsuit because they felt their general manager and their attorney were using a “smokescreen” to hide secrets from them, from the public and from judges.
“This issue is not about bias,” Wiegand said. “This is about information supplied (by Santos and Altieri) to the court because the court was being misled, and so were my clients. ... They wanted the court to know what was going on.”
(Santos and Altieri) represent the public, and the public was being excluded.
Cort Wiegand, attorney
OID attorneys also accused Santos and Altieri of leaking confidential information from a closed session before they were barred from attending. In any case, Santos should not participate, OID lawyers said, because she leases land farmed by Robert Frobose, one of those suing OID in the fallowing case.
Freeland noted that the supposedly leaked information had “nothing whatsoever to do with the case,” and called OID’s reasoning on Santos’ alleged conflict “utterly unpersuasive.” Referring to locking Santos and Altieri out, Freeland said “the punishment does not fit the alleged crime.”
A judge can’t “prevent the exercise of a public office in a lawful manner by the person in possession of that office,” Freeland concluded.
Technically, he dissolved the restraining order issued in July by Judge Roger Beauchesne, and refused to issue a stronger exclusion known as a preliminary injunction.
Meanwhile, Santos continues to face a recall launched in August by supporters of the old guard whose accusations include Santos “aiding and abetting OID’s opponents in a lawsuit.” They have until Nov. 10 to gather 415 signatures of registered voters in Santos’ voting district southeast of Oakdale to prompt a recall ballot.
Santos and Altieri were elected in November, ousting longtime incumbents, and frequently find themselves in the minority in board voting.
Although OID put its fallowing proposal on hold this year, the lawsuit challenging the district’s lack of environmental study may go to trial in November.
Don’t be fooled by their lies. Don’t sign anything until you get all the facts.
Linda Santos’ postcard to OID customers
Silva’s firm recently threatened to sue Santos if she doesn’t retract “untrue, libelous and defamatory statements” in an email and postcard sent to unnamed OID customers.
After the recall drive was announced, Santos urged people in the email not to sign petitions and to call her with questions.
“It’s important for you to understand the turmoil going on inside the OID,” she wrote. “OID’s long-time power brokers – including its upper management and board majority – do not like my probing questions or insistence that the public’s business be conducted in public.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390