Oakdale Irrigation District board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri filed statements with Stanislaus County Superior Court earlier this month explaining their actions from a lawsuit in which they were accused of providing confidential information to plaintiffs suing the water district.
Earlier this year, farmers Robert Frobose and Louis Brichetto acting as the “Oakdale Groundwater Alliance” filed suit against the district to stop the “On-Farm Conservation Program.”
During proceedings in May, Santos and Altieri – who had cast the dissenting votes on the agenda item at an earlier board meeting – provided the plaintiffs’ attorney, Osha Meserve, sworn declarations during a hearing for a court order to halt the sale of water. As a result, in June, the district filed for, and received, an injunction prohibiting the two directors from closed session discussions regarding the matter, citing a conflict of interest.
In the documents filed this month, both women, who defeated longtime incumbents last November, claim that OID General Manager Steve Knell and attorney Tim O’Laughlin teamed up on a plan to sell the contested water to outsiders while not keeping Santos and Altieri in the loop. They also claim that customers, who would be fallowing their land under the program, were also not informed of the program’s true intentions.
“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 both stated in the court declarations.
Knell said the accusations made are false, explaining that the changes made in the water process sales all came to the board on April 5 in a combined water contract.
“That contract had all the details in there,” Knell said. “They (board members) had the contract for three days. I never got a call from any one of them.”
Knell said he answered all questions that were asked of him about the pending program at the April 5 board meeting, including many asked by Linda Santos.
“In my mind she knew what was going on,” Knell said. “I was prepared to explain all of it when we moved to closed session.”
The attorney for Santos and Altieri, Cort Wiegand, feels the two directors are covered by California’s Whistle Blower statute when they provided the May 18 sworn declarations, stating the law was enacted to encourage government employees to uncover wrongdoing.
Wiegand went on to state that Santos and Altieri did not have a conflict of interest with OlD because of the declarations that they signed in the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance action.
He stated the two women had a problem with Knell and O’Laughlin for misleading the court regarding the water exchange and farmers that were hoping to benefit from idling some of their land, which was the purpose of bringing it to the court’s attention.
“The Defendants’ motivations were not to help the Plaintiffs’ in the Alliance lawsuit,” Wiegand wrote in his brief to the court. “The Defendants’ motivation were to protect the integrity of the Court system and to avoid being tarred by the misstatements made to the Court.”
Knell listed multiple reasons why Santos and Altieri should not be included in the Frobose-Brichetto lawsuit discussions, including the fact that both directors had filed declarations testifying against the district, they had breached closed session discussions, and a financial conflict of interest Santos has with Frobose since her family leases farm property to him.
“With all these things, how can you allow them to participate in closed session lawsuit strategy discussions when they plan to testify against us?” Knell asked. “We are left with no choice. We cannot defend our constituents adequately with these ladies sitting there.”
In her declaration Santos addressed her relationship with Frobose stating that he and her husband have signed a crop sharing arrangement where her family shares part of an almond crop with Frobose that covers 24 acres.
Santos stated Frobose does the actual farming of the property and the issues in the Groundwater Alliance lawsuit have nothing to do with finances associated with the crop sharing.
“I have no financial interest in the result,” she declared. “The almonds are only one year old and will not produce a crop for a number of years.”
The Leader reached out to both Linda Santos and Gail Altieri for additional comment, outside the court declarations, but did not receive a response by the deadline for this article.