A larger than average crowd came out for the Oakdale Irrigation District’s Tuesday, June 7 regular meeting, causing the venue to be changed to a larger on-site building. Public comments saw many of the attendees speaking out against Directors Linda Santos and Gail Altieri for their actions related to a lawsuit stopping the water district’s On-Farm Conservation Program that had been approved earlier in the year.
Local farmers Louis Brichetto and Robert Frobose acting as the “Oakdale Groundwater Alliance” are seeking to halt the water transfer and land fallowing from the program with a lawsuit challenging that an in-depth study of environmental consequences is needed.
Last month both directors, who had cast dissenting votes for the program, voluntarily provided sworn affidavits to the plaintiffs’ attorney which resulted in the court putting a temporary halt to the program on May 23.
During the public comment portion of the June 7 meeting no less than 11 persons spoke on behalf of the program, criticizing Santos and Altieri as well as the plaintiffs for bringing the suit.
John Brichetto, brother of one of the plaintiffs, spoke out in support of OID, stating that Santos and Altieri were “in bed with big guys” causing small farmers in the district to suffer.
Several residents have previously commented that Santos and Altieri’s November 2015 campaigns were financed by Louis Brichetto and also that Santos leases farm property to Robert Frobose, causing a financial conflict of interest.
“You need to look at who you represent and it isn’t the big guy,” John Brichetto told the two directors. “…you need to get your head out of your –.”
Several other farmers spoke commending OID and stating that they had signed up for the program, describing it as wise. They fallowed their land per the program, but because of the suit and stay, were now not getting any funds.
“I’m now behind the eight ball because of you,” said farmer Nate Ludlow, who had not grown crops this season.
Others pointed out that the program worked to farmers’ benefit, allowing pipes to be repaired, less water usage equating to less taxes, and lands to be leveled to avoid swamping and stagnation to assist mosquito abatement.
“Growers need OID to run smart, this is a great program,” said Robert Longstreth. “It takes charge of (excess) water rather than let feds decide.”
The condemnation of the two didn’t stop with the public comment.
Santos pulled a consent item regarding $30,000 payment of legal fees and talked about the May 4 hearing where she subsequently provided information to Brichetto and Frobose’s attorney.
“We pay a tremendous amount of money for legal representation, everybody pays a portion,” Santos said. “But I was surprised when the time came in court, our attorney did not say anything.”
Santos continued about her reason for going to court and providing the declaration.
“I go because I don’t want to hear things secondhand,” Santos said.
At that time, OID General Manager Steve Knell advised the board that Santos’ comments were not in line with the agenda item – paying the financial obligation.
“I think $30,000 is a lot, but it would be zero if people weren’t suing us,” Director Steve Webb said. “The attorney didn’t need to say anything because it was going well. Things were going our way until you and Gail joined the other side.”
The audience then broke out in applause.
Santos continued, stating she was wondering how OID’s attorney could make statements and decisions in court without the board making those decisions prior in public forum.
OID Attorney Brandi Barnes again advised the dais that the matter for discussion was solely the payment of the bill.
“Linda, you need to own the truth about your action regarding your tenant,” John Brichetto said from the podium.
“He needs to be kicked out of here,” Altieri said after Brichetto spoke. “Where’s the Sergeant at Arms?”
Frobose then took the podium starting to explain the purpose of the suit and Barnes again reminded him that the matter for discussion surrounded solely the payment of the bill.
“If you weren’t suing us, there would be no legal bill,” Webb said toward Frobose.
Farmer Travis Davola advised Santos that the legal bill obviously covered more than the court appearance and what was said in court because of preparation and other associated factors.
“We should pay the bill regardless of the people who are suing us, or their supporters, that are urging us not to pay this bill,” Duval said.
During the meeting, Oakdale City Councilman Tom Dunlop had also spoken, but not associated with the controversial On-Farm Conservation Program.
Dunlop’s concerns were regarding other water contracts and the potential impact to the city’s allotments.
Dunlop reminded the board of a plan from eight years ago concerning water rights to the citizens of the city and also said if the district is going to be selling water; it should go to the highest bidder, not just a friendly neighboring district.
After the meeting Dunlop said that after observing OID board’s actions, he saw the system degrading from elected officials being policy makers to certain directors micro-managing the district staff.
“They need to get back to being policy makers,” Dunlop said. “If you lose a vote, accept it, you lost.”
Later in the day OID disclosed that in closed session Director Herman Doornenbal made a motion to direct their legal staff to seek a preliminary injunction against Directors Santos and Altieri to preclude them from participating in further closed session discussions related to the matter of the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance lawsuit.
The motion passed 3-2 with Santos and Altieri dissenting.