After a week of court actions (see related article below), the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors met on Wednesday, Sept 21. During the emotionally charged meeting, factions sounded off, including the meeting ending with General Manager Steve Knell defending himself against media accusations, sounding off against Director Linda Santos, which was trailed by Santos defending herself with her own stern retorts back to Knell.
The end result was that both embattled parties asserted the truth would prevail and exonerate their actions.
Legal Opinion On Law Firm Conflict
On the Sept. 21 OID agenda was a contested item whether a potential conflict of interest existed regarding the OID designated legal firm providing services for the district, while suing two of its board members – Linda Santos and Gail Altieri – in the attempt to get a restraining order.
Santos and Altieri had expressed concern because they had voted against certain decisions and have now alleged a conflict exists because of the firm’s representation of OID against them in litigation.
There were also claims that the conflict existed because Director Steve Webb had used the firm for an unrelated personal matter that Webb now says is over.
As a result, the law firm of Long & Levitt, an experienced firm in conflict cases, was hired and determined no conflict existed. The Long & Levitt determination stressed that OID’s law firm, Damrell Nelson Schrimp Pallios Pacher & Silva, represented the district, and not individual board member legal concerns.
In its study, it was identified that California statutes provide that if a member acting on behalf of an organization refuses to act in a manner which is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, actions can be taken in the best lawful interest of the organization.
“The Firm also understands that these individuals have and will continue to take action that is inconsistent with the law and their duties as members of the Board, including disregarding conflicts of interest and divulging confidential attorney-client privileged information involving, among other things, District litigation strategy,” the Long & Levitt two-page letter stated. “There appears to be a significant risk that these actions will result in substantial injury to the District. The Board has therefore determined it is appropriate to take legal action to prevent the Defendants from continuing their harmful conduct in the future.”
During discussion of the letter at the meeting Santos said she still disagreed, believing there was a conflict.
“I’m not an attorney, but I still think there’s a conflict,” Santos said. “How can they be suing us and also representing us?”
During public comment, Santos-Altieri supporter Robert Frobose attempted to ask OID Attorney Fred Silva questions, using examples from his own lawsuit.
“You’re getting off base here,” Board President Webb told Frobose.
“This law firm rendered a decision and I believe it’s the right opinion,” Silva said. “This matter is done.”
The board voted 3-2 with Santos and Altieri casting the dissenting votes, to accept the decision.
Meeting Tense, GM and Director Fire Off Verbal Shots
As the meeting progressed, tension could be felt in the room.
During the portion allotted for Knell to make comments he fired off stating much misinformation had been provided to various media outlets by Santos and her supporters.
Knell gave a chronological history of events surrounding the On-Farm Conservation Program sale and transfer of water, at one point using a visual aid of colored balls to represent water designations.
“For anyone to assert this project has not been vetted in full to the public is factually wrong,” Knell said.
Knell recapped dates and discussion items, including votes, frequently calling out Santos by name.
“This language was included so everyone would know how transactions were done in 2016,” Knell stated. “There was nothing to hide from the board.”
Knell then brought up emails he received from Santos on May 5.
“That was the first I knew you didn’t understand,” Knell said toward the director.
Throughout Knell’s assertion, Santos tried to interrupt and question him, resulting in Director Webb reminding her she would have a chance to respond, but the floor belonged to Knell. Audience members, in support of Santos, also heckled Knell.
“I resent that you’re trying your case and I don’t get to comment,” Santos said, bringing out a recorder advising Knell she was recording the incident.
“This is a witch hunt,” Altieri chimed in.
Knell continued that he had repeatedly made himself available to both Santos and Altieri, yet they went to Robert Frobose and Louis Brichetto’s attorney.
Knell said that after 10 months with Santos and Altieri on the board he has only had one meeting with them.
“I have never had a phone call from those two directors in 10 months,” Knell said, pointing to the end of the dais where Santos and Altieri sat.
He accused the two women of not cooperating with the rest of the board and isolating themselves.
“What you just did is typical and one of the reasons me and Gail don’t have conversations with you,” Santos fired back when given her time to speak.
Santos said because of confusing answers given by Knell, she has resorted to communicating with the director in writing.
“Mr. Knell, I have made every effort to be part of this board,” Santos said. “I am here to do the job I was elected to do.”
Santos said that she ran for a board seat because of the concerns she had and what she had seen during meetings.
As Santos finished, she stated that in the end, the truth would be revealed about goings on in the district.
After the meeting, one OID employee, asking to be kept anonymous, commented “we were one insult away from a schoolyard knife fight.”