New board members will tackle Merced Irrigation District issues

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 13, 2012 

— There are several upcoming hurdles for the Merced Irrigation District, and it will have to clear them with some new board members.

Three of the five people on the board were voted out in the middle of, among other projects, relicensing of the Merced River Hydroelectric Project under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Voters replaced five-year board member and chairwoman Suzy Hultgren, and 40-year local irrigation district veteran Gino Pedretti with incoming freshmen Kevin Gonzalvez and Scott Koehn, respectively.

"Thank you to the people," said Gonzalvez, who will represent Division 4, which includes Livingston, Cressey, Winton and a small part of Atwater. "It's an exciting time. I look forward to getting in there and listening to the people."

The MID hopefully will continue to improve its water and electrical distribution network, said Koehn, who was elected to represent Division 2, which includes south Merced and El Nido.

"I don't come into being seated with any huge agendas," he said, "I ran on a platform of more informed and balanced leadership, and that's what I intend to bring to the district."

Koehn and Gonzalvez ran on somewhat opposing platforms, especially when it came to issues surrounding water curtailments -- on which their predecessors also disagreed.

Meanwhile, Billy Pimentel won the latest round against longtime political rival Wil Hunter in the contest for Division 5, which encompasses most of Atwater and the area southwest of the city.

After losing an initial challenge in 2003, Hunter replaced Pimentel on the board in 2007. Now Pimentel has regained the seat for four years, receiving a substantial 61.4 percent of the vote.

Next year should be busy for the MID.

In March, the district will tackle union negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. During the election, the issue of worker morale was repeatedly raised by Gonzalvez, Pimentel and Pedretti.

At the same time, the MID will take control of the hydro project, under a 50-year agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Mariposa County has asserted a conflicting legal interpretation of the contract agreement, which complicates things.

It's hard to say what's going to happen until the MID board has its first meeting with the new members in January, said Dave Long, the MID director for Division 3.

Long gave kudos to the outgoing members, saying that over recent years the district has moved in a positive direction.

"I think we've greatly improved our customer service," he said. "I think we're operating much more efficiently. Over the last three years, the board's done some amazingly good things."

Tim Pellissier, MID director for Division 1, expressed confidence that the new board will be successful.

"I don't think it will be a challenge," he said "With an orientation from staff, I think we can bring everybody up to speed. It's mostly just common sense stuff."

Terms on the MID board are four years. However, members elected in 2007 served five-year terms because the district switched its elections to even-numbered years.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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