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Controversy floods board as vote nears

It was supposed to be about water, but politics got in the way.

The upcoming election for the Merced Irrigation District board has become a torrent of conflicting opinions. And it led to the Merced County Farm Bureau late last week pulling its support of a candidate — showing that, like water, politics will seek its own level.

MID oversees, regulates and dispenses water for eastern Merced County, and is about to fill spots on its five-member board of directors.

Voters will decide on Nov. 6 which Atwater farmer they want to represent Division 5 — Wil Hunter or Billy Pimentel, who has been on the board for 16 years.

Suzy Hultgren ran unopposed for Division 4 after former MID board member Stanley Morimoto retired. No one else filed papers to run, so she will be sworn into the position, said Ted Selb, deputy general manager of MID. No one ran against Gino Pedretti of Division 2 either, so he walks in for another year.

Hunter’s concerns over the election began with the connection between Pimentel and Hultgren. Hultgren is Pimentel’s daughter-in-law. If the voters chose Pimentel for Division 5, two members of the same family will be on the MID board, Hunter said. “I’m sure she’s a capable person, but I think it’s wrong.”

He also took issue with Hultgren not using her married name of Pimentel when she ran. And he did not understand why she will not appear on the ballot. A voter should have the chance to support a write-in candidate, he said.

Hultgren was surprised by the controversy. She said she is not financially connected to her father-in-law and does not believe the situation is a conflict of interest. “There is no deception,” she said. “My name is Hultgren. I decided I could represent my district and the ideas growers had. Billy had nothing to do with me running.”

Pimentel declined to comment.

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, the situation would be a problem if the family members were financially involved with each other — which could be proven by their tax statements, said Stephen Jones, registrar of voters for Merced County.

“I am independent in my business and my banking from Billy,” said Hultgren, a Winton/Cressy area organic dairy and beef cattle rancher.

And not putting an uncontested candidate on a ballet happens frequently in many districts, Jones said: “If there’s no contest, if no one else stepped up to the plate, there’s no reason for (MID) spend thousands of dollars on an election just in case someone wanted to be a write-in.”

Hunter said he respected Hultgren and wasn’t accusing her of breaking any laws, but wanted the voters to know what was going on. “As a voter it rubs me the wrong way,” said his son, Scott, who is helping him with the election.

But the Merced County Farm Bureau — which had initially endorsed Hunter — did not agree with the way he spread his concerns by advertising and fliers, said Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, its executive director. On Thursday evening, the Farm Bureau decided to withdraw its endorsement because it believed he was running a negative campaign.

Scott Hunter was appalled. “There’s nothing we said that wasn’t true,” he said. “The fact is, if (Pimentel) was elected he would be serving on the board with his daughter-in-law. ... By no means did we go negative — we just got the facts out.”

He didn’t believe he and his father got the chance to give their side to the Farm Bureau before it took back its endorsement. “But if that’s how they feel, that’s their right,” he said. “I question the motive and how it was gone about. ... Either way, win or lose, there are no regrets about speaking to the voters about the issues.”

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at 209 385-2472 or dlevey@mercedsun-star.com

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