OID sues two of its own board members

Crowd at Oakdale Irrigation District board meeting June 7, 2016.
Crowd at Oakdale Irrigation District board meeting June 7, 2016. GARTH STAPLEY / gstapley@modbee.com

Water leaders voted 3-2 Tuesday to sue to bar elected board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri from closed-door board discussions regarding an ongoing lawsuit facing the Oakdale Irrigation District.

Santos and Altieri cast “no” votes but were outvoted by board members Steve Webb, Gary Osmundson and Herman Doornenbal.

Board members also agreed unanimously to investigate themselves for a leak presumably related to the lawsuit.

After the meeting, Altieri said, “Linda and I have followed our mandate of the people who elected us, and we will not be intimidated or bullied.”

State law allows leaders to meet out of the public eye when discussing matters such as legal action, and the OID panel huddled behind closed doors after Tuesday’s testy board meeting. It was held in an auxiliary building to accommodate a crowd of about 60, many of whom asked to go forward with a fallowing program – the subject of the lawsuit.

The district has provided judges with conflicting information about the program and has yet to publicly explain its status. “All previously contracted participants were notified” May 24 and 25 that it’s in limbo, a report said, after a judge last month ruled that the district must conduct more environmental studies before launching the program.

The board majority deserves blame for “badly mismanag(ing)” the program by not complying with environmental law, Santos said in a statement Wednesday.

“Instead of apologizing to the community for their mistakes, the district’s administrators and three board members are maliciously spreading misinformation and falsely blaming Gail Altieri and (me) for the program’s demise,” Santos said. “Now the board majority wants to shut us up by cutting us out of OID’s decision-making process.”

In technical terms, Webb, Osmundson and Doornenbal voted to go to court to seek a judge’s temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Santos and Altieri, “to preclude them from participating in further closed-session discussions” on the fallowing lawsuit.

OID lawyers last month had asked the judge to order Santos and Altieri not to speak with the suing attorney, but the judge said that request was “procedurally incorrect” and declined.

Examples of other agencies suing their own elected leaders include city councils in Riverbank and Patterson, which went to court to try to remove former council members Jesse James White and Sheree Lustgarten, respectively.

Some OID board members sparred in open session Tuesday over aspects of the lawsuit. In private, the board voted unanimously to have its attorneys “explore whether there was a breach of closed-session confidentiality by a (board) director and to bring back appropriate remedies for board consideration,” General Manager Steve Knell reported.

Santos and Altieri have said they were kept in the dark about OID’s fallowing program, and attorneys opposing the program used their declarations in the lawsuit. In open session, board Chairman Steve Webb said “the court case was going in our favor; every finding was for us, till you (Santos) and Gail decided to join the court case on the other side, then it seemed to shift a little bit.”

The women are not parties in the lawsuit, Santos noted. Both voted Tuesday against paying a law firm $30,000 for a month’s work, partly because one of its attorneys abruptly declined to engage in a verbal argument with opposing counsel just before the judge ruled against OID.

Osmundson drew loud applause when he suggested that the legal bill “could have been zero, if people weren’t suing us all the time.”

Osumdson is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because he applied to fallow land that he farms, then voted a couple days later to create the fallowing program, potentially putting $119,000 in his pocket. Without his vote, the program would have died in a 2-2 tie, with Santos and Altieri opposing.

Attorneys told him his vote would be legal because terms of the fallowing program would favor him no more than other participants, he and Knell have said, and Osmundson did not end up with a pending contract, a court document said.

“Gary Osmundson is as honest a guy as you’ll ever meet,” said a man in the audience who did not provide his name.

Some in the audience, including Frank Rivera, Nate Ludlow and Dustin Boothe, were upset because OID urged them to sign up for the program, then canceled it too late for them to grow anything. Participants were to get 20 percent of proceeds in cash and spend 75 percent on efficiency upgrades.

“I’m playing by the rules. My pasture’s dead. The water’s (gone) down the river and we’re not getting paid for it. There’s something wrong there,” Rivera said.

Others’ comments suggested confusion over the program’s status. Steve John, Robert Longstreth and Mary Alpers, for example, urged the board to forge ahead.

John Brichetto went after Santos and Altieri, saying they were in cahoots with critics, alluding to Louis Brichetto, a plaintiff in the fallowing lawsuit; the brothers have fiercely opposed each other in separate court matters. Karla Schwoerer scolded John Brichetto, saying, “to personally attack (Santos and Altieri) is not proper.”

Santos and Altieri were outvoted again in a 3-2 decision to support OID’s partner on the Stanislaus River, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, in its sale of 10,000 acre-feet of water to the Stockton East Water District and a related document memorializing both districts’ responsibilities in that and other water sales.

In other matters, the board unanimously agreed to hold night meetings on the third Tuesday of each month and to have Knell prepare monthly newsletters. His office also began posting online meeting agenda packets with supplementary materials last week. Santos and Altieri had advocated for all those points in calls for transparency when campaigning before their elections in November.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390