The Merced Irrigation District board has decided to move voting for its membership to odd years, reasoning that separating it from the even-year general elections would boost local control and protect farm interests from environmentalist-led campaigning.
The board voted 4-1 Tuesday to move election of its members to odd years, despite the likelihood of higher costs. Atwater farmer Billy Pimentel, a former MID board president and current representative for District 5, cast the lone “no” vote.
Pimentel expressed concern that some growers who signed a letter supporting the odd-year cycle were misinformed about what they were signing. He also said he didn’t understand the need to change the even-year cycle the board adopted in 2011.
“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” he said.
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Scott Koehn, the board’s vice president, said having elections in odd years could provide more local control to farmers.
“They (environmental groups) can emotionally appeal to the general-election voting base a whole lot more effectively than they can in an off-election cycle,” Koehn said.
Jeff Marchini, director of Division 1, said things are different than in 2011. If MID wants to protect its water from the environmental groups in Sacramento, switching the election years is the right thing to do, he said.
“Things have changed dramatically since 2011 – I’ve seen with my very eyes – up in Sacramento,” he said, “and it’s a whole different world right now. It’s going to continue that way.”
At the board’s Oct. 20 meeting, growers presented letters requesting that the board switch to the odd-year cycle in order to have voters focus on the MID race, rather than consider it as an afterthought during a general election. During Tuesday’s meeting, farmers also said switching to the odd-year cycle would avoid partisan election rhetoric they said works against the election of candidates who support farming interests.
Local farmers said they increasingly are concerned by environmental groups that are pushing the State Water Resources Control Board to release more water to flow through regional waterways in order to protect native fish. The “unimpaired flow” plan could limit the amount of water available to farmers through MID. Local water agencies have asked the state board to pursue other “more practical” approaches for protecting fish. Last week, dozens of environmental groups signed a letter urging the state board to reject the request.
The five-member MID board, whose members are all tied to agriculture, oversees the Merced Irrigation District, which owns, operates and maintains water storage facilities on the Merced River, including the New Exchequer and McSwain dams. The district’s boundaries include 138,000 acres of irrigable lands, according to its website. Members serve four-year terms, with either two seats or three seats up for a vote each election.
Before 2011, elections for MID board members took place in odd years, similar to other irrigation districts in the region. The board voted to switch to even years to align with school districts in the county who did so and split the cost of elections.
According to MID documents, the county election office has said it costs roughly $5 per registered voter to hold a vote, putting the total cost of an election on an average annual basis at more than $60,000 if MID is the only agency participating. Current average annual election costs are about $11,000 per year.
By switching to an odd-year cycle, current board members’ terms will be extended by one year. The election that was scheduled for November 2016 for the directors in Divisions 2, 4 and 5 will be extended to November 2017. Elections for the directors in Divisions 1 and 3 will be extended to November 2019.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477