Good old boys on OID: for whom the bell knells

Submitted: Sep 20, 2016
By: 
Badlands Journal editorial board

 

9-9-16

Modesto Bee

OID dysfunction aired in court papers

Gail Altieri, OID board member Joan Barnett Lee Modesto Bee file

Garth Stapley

http://www.modbee.com/news/local/oakdale/article101010062.html

 

OAKDALE --Irrigation board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri got mixed up in a lawsuit against their agency because they felt their general manager and their attorney were hiding secrets from them, from the public and from a judge, the women said in new court documents.

Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell learned in late March that state water officials had nixed OID’s request for permission to sell elsewhere some water to be freed up from fallowing land, the papers say, but kept the news from OID customers and from Santos and Altieri, and continued misleading them in subsequent emails.

The women were stunned when, six weeks later, an attorney representing OID told a judge that the fallowing deal had fallen through, and were even more perplexed two days later when Knell told the board that the water indeed would soon be delivered.

So Santos and Altieri – elected in November by wide margins after promising more transparency – provided sworn statements used by plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the fallowing plan.

BOTH (WOMEN) SIGNED DECLARATIONS IN THE (FALLOWING) MATTER BECAUSE THEY KNEW THAT THE WATER WAS BEING TRANSFERRED AND THAT THE COURT WAS BEING MISLED BY OID. … THE COURT WAS TOLD THAT THE TRANSFER WAS DEAD ON MAY 4 WHEN IN FACT BEHIND THE SCENES OID AND MR. KNELL WERE ENGAGED IN A SHELL GAME.

Cort Wiegand, attorney for Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, in legal brief

Santos’ and Altieri’s “motivations were not to help the plaintiffs in the lawsuit,” a legal brief says. “(Their) motivation was to protect the integrity of the court system and to avoid being tarred by the misstatements made to the court.”

Some farmers recently launched an effort to recall Santos because she is guilty of “aiding and abetting OID’s opponents in a lawsuit,” among other allegations. In a response, Santos called the drive “a campaign of lies.”

The new documents paint a troubling picture of dysfunction at OID’s top level, suggesting that Knell and attorney Tim O’Laughlin collaborated on schemes to sell water to wealthy outsiders while hiding the ball from Santos, Altieri and farmers hoping to benefit from idling some of their land.

I WAS COMPLETELY UNAWARE THAT OID WAS ATTEMPTING TO DO INDIRECTLY WHAT THEY HAD NOT BEEN ABLE TO DO DIRECTLY. I HAVE ONLY SUBSEQUENTLY LEARNED THAT OID ESSENTIALLY ABANDONED THE WATER IN QUESTION IN ORDER TO GET AROUND THE REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS, WHICH INCLUDE TIMELY APPLICATIONS AND POTENTIALLY ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORTS.

Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, in court statements

OID “constituents are entitled to know what’s going on and they are entitled to know when the OID is participating in a shell game or a ruse,” Santos and Altieri said in court declarations filed Wednesday.

An OID board majority – Steve Webb, Herman Doornenbal and Gary Osmundson – saw the women’s participation in the case as treasonous and sued to keep them from closed-door strategy and voting on lawsuit matters. A judge in June agreed, and the recent briefings are part of Santos’ and Altieri’s effort to regain access to the private huddles.

The women also take exception with a memo from Knell in which he claimed to have informed the board in early April of a change in the fallowing plan. That’s a lie, Santos and Altieri say in the new papers.

“I have a duty to see that the courts are not misled by perjured or inaccurate information, which is why I signed the declaration,” both women wrote in new statements.

NEITHER WE AS BOARD MEMBERS NOR THE PUBLIC WERE INFORMED THAT THE (STATE) COULD NOT PROCESS THE WATER TRANSFER. THERE WAS NO EXPLANATION TO THE BOARD MEMBERS ON APRIL 5 AND THERE WAS NO VOTE ON THE MECHANISM BY WHICH OID WOULD ATTEMPT TO ACCOMPLISH THE WATER TRANSFER.

Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, in court statements

Santos and Altieri also “categorically deny” having divulged confidential information gleaned from a closed-door board session.

The women are protected by “strong whistleblower statutes” in California law, enacted to encourage government employees to uncover wrongdoing, their Modesto attorney, Cort Wiegand, said in a court brief.

“(They) were attempting to find out what had happened with regard to the water, and they were also attempting to make sure the court was not being misled,” the paper says.

I AM NOT AGAINST THE (FALLOWING) PROGRAM AND BELIEVE IF PROPERLY IMPLEMENTED, IT WOULD PROVE TO BE A BENEFIT TO THE OID AND THE AREA.

Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, in court statements

OID stands out among local water agencies in its history of selling river water elsewhere, having obtained more than $50 million in recent years.

The neighboring Modesto Irrigation District’s well-vetted proposal to sell water to San Francisco was abandoned in 2012 after months of public discussion and debate. In contrast, OID last fall inked a $5.75 million water sale with no public discussion or vote in Oakdale.

415Division 4 signatures needed to prompt an election to recall Linda Santos

1,231Division 1 signatures needed if detractors had targeted Gail Altieri

Santos said she believes she is being targeted for removal because critics need to gather 415 signatures in her district to prompt a recall election, while 1,231 signatures would be required in Altieri’s district, according to updated estimates from the Stanislaus County elections office.

Previous board members knew that state law required resizing of OID’s voting districts after the 2010 U.S. census but failed to take action until The Modesto Bee uncovered the foot-dragging in June 2015. Then-board members subsequently hired a firm to start the process, but no change has been proposed and Knell recently said it’s not a priority.

 

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