Community Columns

Commentary | Modesto Irrigation District has become less transparent

Emerson Drake at a Modesto City Council hearing
Emerson Drake at a Modesto City Council hearing Modesto Bee

If trust is to be maintained in this age, transparency from public entities is vitally important. But the Modesto Irrigation District has taken two giant steps backward.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is the gold standard in transparency in local government; MID stood alone in second place for five years. But last November, General Manager Scott Furgerson started sending Public Records Act requests to his personally chosen law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, and things became radically different.

A request was filed on Nov. 26 for information on a suspected Brown Act Violation. In December, the above outside law firm stated the need for an extension, citing seasonal holiday delays. Then in January they extended again to the end of February. And yes, on Valentine’s Day they pushed it out again until March. One has to wonder if St. Patrick’s Day will be blamed for yet another foot-dragging delay.

More recently a request about billing from this same law firm came into question. They claimed that billing MID to respond to our request for public information “involves a specific matter that falls within the attorney-client privilege; the district will not provide records for any future renewed request.” So basically we’ve been told MID will spend money wherever it sees fit without public explanation.

At MID’s March 12 meeting a question came up regarding a Gualco invoice. This is the company that last summer tried to raise their contract price with MID so they could employ a former MID employee who quit after allegedly failing to show up for work. When board President Paul Campbell was asked to direct the attorney to share details of the invoice, he emphatically said “no.”

To provide clarity, we have a divided board. Directors Nick Blom and Larry Byrd have worked hard to provide transparency and openness to MID since they were elected in 2011. Unfortunately, Directors John Mensinger, Paul Campbell, Stu Gilman and General Manager Scott Furgerson prefer secrecy and power to transparency and openness.

In 2005, MID systematically restricted information not only from the public but from selected board members. Just a few years later they were trying to sell our water to San Francisco. If we fail to learn from history we’re destined to repeat it. Or in other words, history becomes prologue. We need honesty and integrity, and only through openness and transparency will we get it.

Emerson Drake of Modesto is a blogger and a longtime government watchdog.

Editor’s note: Local commentary is offered to stimulate debate and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Modesto Bee.