Friday, March 24, 2017
[Stanislaus County] Grand jury blasts OID for defying law on balanced voting districts
The Oakdale Irrigation District [OID] for many years has violated state and federal law by failing to balance its voting districts, the Stanislaus County civil grand jury says in a report seeking immediate action.
“Clearly, OID is out of compliance with the laws on redistricting,” says the report, released Thursday evening. The grand jury recommends that OID correct the problem, and “immediately develop and implement a district policy” so numbers of people in OID’s five districts don’t get out of kilter again.
OID “has no disagreements with the facts as presented,” says a press release issued Friday. The release notes that the OID board began the process of resizing – also known as redistricting or reapportionment – in 2015. The process started 10 days after The Modesto Bee exposed the issue.
Next step: airing proposals to adjust boundaries of voting districts, and letting people comment. A presentation and public hearing are scheduled for a board meeting Tuesday evening. It’s not clear when final action might be taken.
The district has not made public the reapportioning options reviewed by a committee in recent weeks. Some who have seen map proposals say the latest revision appears gerrymandered to preserve power for the current board majority.
The grand jury was tipped off by an Oakdale resident and Bee articles, the report says. The Bee in 2015 found that OID’s voting districts over the years had become so imbalanced that one had bloated to twice the population of another.
Other government agencies – including the Modesto, Turlock and South San Joaquin irrigation districts – had followed the law by resizing after the 2010 Census so that sizes of their voting districts deviated less than 5 percent.
The Bee showed that then-OID board members failed to reapportion in 2011 despite being aware of the law. When the grand jury questioned General Manager Steve Knell recently, the new report says, “the response was, ‘We simply forgot to do it.’ ”
In fact, OID has not resized since 1991 – missing both the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, the panel reported. Technically, OID has missed eight chances to resize since 2000, representing its odd-year elections.
OID also apparently ignored a 2011 written warning from the county Clerk-Recorder’s office, the report says.
If OID voting districts were balanced, each would have 6,340 people, according to numbers Knell gave the grand jury. Instead, populations range from 8,366 – 30 percent larger than is legal – to 4,307, or 33 percent smaller than the average.
No government agency regulates others’ sizes, experts have told The Bee.
“OID is committed to completing this process,” the press release says, and intends to do so in time for the November ballot; the deadline for that election comes in May. All three members comprising the board majority – Gary Osmundson, Steve Webb and Herman Doornenbal – will be up for re-election in the fall.
“It was OID that advised the civil grand jury of (OID’s) intent to develop an OID policy on redistricting such that these matters don’t go overlooked again,” the advisory says.
Knell and the board must respond to the grand jury report within 90 days.
Results of failing to resize are being seen in a current recall campaign against board member Linda Santos, with a ballot scheduled for April 25. If former board members had followed the law, her critics would have been required to collect twice the number of signatures to prompt the special election.
Board member Gail Altieri was elected along with Santos in fall 2015 and the two frequently find themselves on the short end of 2-3 votes. Division among the board has brought two lawsuits, including the board majority suing in an attempt to keep the two women out of some closed-door strategy sessions.
Failing to resize – a decision made before Altieri and Santos joined the board – also effectively reduces political power in Altieri’s voting district, the largest and most urban of the five divisions. In other words, the voice of her constituents – mostly city folk – is diluted.
City dwellers pay OID more than $1 million in taxes each year, The Bee reported Monday. City officials have questioned whether that’s fair, and the two agencies have begun exploring how city people can get more of a return in future services such as using some of OID’s share of the Stanislaus River to water city parks, instead of pumping groundwater.
Tuesday’s OID board meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the boardroom at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale. First on the agenda is the redistricting presentation and public hearing.
The board also expects to:
▪ Discuss and possibly decide how to spend $2 million from selling surplus water to outsiders last fall.
▪ Settle on a price for selling surplus water to farmers just outside OID boundaries.
▪ Hire a company to drill a tunnel in a hill near Knights Ferry, and award associated bids.
March 17, 2017
The Modesto Bee
By Garth Stapley