WHEREAS many water districts are not democratic institutions, despite the intention of democratically elected boards;
WHEREAS some water districts get away with being corrupt as fuck for a long time;
You might think that I’m going to go for some of the obvious forms of non-democracy, perhaps the famous ‘water districts on the west side allocate votes by acreage, not by population’. Please. We are not amateurs here.
One of my personal favorite ways that a water district can be non-democratic is when there simply isn’t a population in the district, or the only town is entirely made up of farmworkers who can’t vote, or can’t vote against their boss’s interests. Arax described the Lost Hills Water District that way:
I call the manager of the Lost Hills Water District. He used to work for the Resnicks before Stewart put him in charge of the district. He’s a decent guy making $216,000 a year who doesn’t pretend that he isn’t beholden to Wonderful.
In my younger, sweeter days, I thought that Dudley Ridge was unusual for being wholly unaccountable to a voting public, but now I realize most of the west side districts have no independent voting public. They cannot be re-directed by democracy, unless it is at the State level.
The next way that water districts are undemocratic is when the Board doesn’t change for thirty years. Special district policy is often arcane, requires local media translation, and the default is to ignore it. It can languish or answer to only a few interests for decades. It is undemocratic if the actual remedy is for people to expend unrealistic effort to overcome a default to get a board to implement the majority preference. (The counter-argument is that there is a demanding ‘tightrope of right action‘ that could overcome this problem, but frankly, systems that demand that much work to represent majority will are bad systems.)
Now I’m going to do a crossfade from ‘undemocratic’ to ‘corrupt AF’ by pointing you to The Valley Citizen’s amazing blogging on Oakdale Irrigation District. It gets hard to make a distinction. When three of the five board members literally lock the two reformer board members out of meetings (by locking them outside and declaring quorum), is that undemocratic or corrupt? If they go on to make illegal water deals, I think we can call that part corrupt, which finishes the fade to water districts that do corrupt shit with no real oversight.
The wonderful Betty Yee caught Panoche Water District for corruption and the SEC caught Westlands WD doing “a little Enron accounting”. Tom Birmingham was never disbarred for his perjury, so the consequences for corruption clearly aren’t strong enough. That is if there is effective oversight at all, which, for example, Fresno County isn’t doing to catch illegal out-of-county water exports. And of course, there’s the old fashioned method of district employees plain out stealing their constituents’ money for decades.
I welcome your stories about undemocratic (for any reason) and corrupt water districts (let’s stay within California, because that’s what this blog does) in the comments.
UPDATE 11/14: Rural water district holds first election since 1970s There doesn’t appear to be wrongdoing here, but this is also not a vibrant expression of the people’s will as expressed through their representatives.