In the Stanislaus County District 3 supervisor race, the candidates are talking about two main issues: groundwater transfers and whether political experience is what county government needs.
Bill Lyons, a cattle rancher and former state food and agriculture secretary, is pitted against Modesto accountant Terry Withrow, who has never held public office.
The election could test whether political credentials rate high with county voters in this time of fiscal uncertainty.
"It seems like musical chairs anymore as far as the politicians are concerned," said Withrow, a partner in the Ciccarelli & Withrow accounting firm. "The same people are running for different offices. The experienced people are running the show, and how well is that working for us?"
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Lyons suggests that Withrow is not such a fresh face on the political scene, having twice served as campaign treasurer for Mike Serpa, a former Modesto councilman and Modesto Irrigation District board member.
"I think you know more about (politics) than you are letting on," Lyons said during a candidates session with The Bee's editorial board last week. "You know what goes on."
The winner June 8 will succeed Supervisor Jeff Grover, who was first elected in 2002 and decided last year not to seek another term.
Lyons has Grover's endorsement and support from the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Modesto Chamber of Commerce, Modesto Police Officers Association, the Latino Community Roundtable and Stanislaus/Tuolumne Central Labor Council.
Withrow is endorsed by the Republican Party of Stanislaus County.
Lyons and Withrow are advocates for agriculture, the county's No. 1 industry. But Lyons went on the attack last week over out-of-county groundwater transfers.
He charged that a West Side farmer related to Withrow is pumping large amounts of groundwater south and that the relative's family is a major contributor to Withrow's campaign.
Lyons supports a proposed ordinance that would prohibit out-of-county transfers to keep from depleting the county's aquifers. Without the ordinance, proponents fear the county's groundwater could be sold in exchange agreements involving the state and federal water projects on the valley's West Side.
'It's not an issue'
Withrow explained that a brother-in-law, Jon Maring, is pumping from property in western Stanislaus County and transferring the water to orchards near Firebaugh in Fresno County. He said he has told Maring that he's opposed to the transfers.
Besides running an accounting business, Withrow grows grapes and almonds, but none of the transferred water has gone to his almond trees near Firebaugh, he said.
"It is not an issue," Withrow said. "It's an issue in Bill's mind. I am against the exportation of groundwater from the county."
Of the $52,511 raised by Withrow's campaign through March 17, $26,000 in donations and loans have come from the Maring Family Partnership and associated family members.
Withrow expressed concern about ordinance language that would exempt wells drilled before a certain date. He said Lyons needs to explain why there are a dozen new wells on his Mapes Ranch, west of Modesto.
According to Lyons, the wells have been planned for years so the ranch can produce almond trees and vineyards. The rancher also is concerned about the drought.
"The water is going to be used on land within the Modesto Irrigation District," Lyons said. "We are not shipping water out of the county."
Lyons is general manager of Mapes Ranch, a cattle and farming operation off Highway 132 west of Modesto. He is a former board member of the MID, a past president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and former board member for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
In 1999, Gov. Davis appointed Lyons to oversee the state Department of Food and Agriculture, an agency with more than 2,000 employees and a $300 million budget. He led the agency for five years.
Lyons said he's seeking the county office because he enjoys public service.
District 3 includes Sa-lida, northwest and southwest Modesto and farmland outside the city's boundary.
Lyons said the county is well-managed but could improve its health system, and he has called for more engagement from county supervisors to repair the public employee pension system.
As of last July, the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association could meet 71 percent of the pension obligations to retirees and employees of the county, Ceres, the Superior Court and five special districts.
"I see it as unsustainable," Lyons said of the pension system. "We need a solution not only for the taxpayers, but for the sake of current retirees and employees."
What about West Park?
Withrow serves on the county assessor's appeals board and board of directors of the Gallo Center for the Arts.
He stressed that the county's leading politicians are not listening to the public.
As an example, the county went forward with West Park, the project to develop a multimodal transportation center and industrial park at the former Crows Landing Navy airfield. The 4,800-acre proposal by developer Gerry Kamilos was much larger than the county's request for plans to develop the 1,500-acre base. Kamilos' plan was opposed by Patterson and Newman.
"I don't know why they even looked at it," Withrow said. "Not only did (the supervisors) look at it, they approved it. It's just smoke and mirrors for new houses."
He contends the county has relied too much on housing construction to drive its economy. New homes should be a byproduct of expanding the county's industrial base, he said.
To spur economic development, "we need to reduce the taxes and regulations on existing businesses, make it more business friendly, and then we can attract more business," Withrow said.
The county should promote agriculture, he said, instead of paving over rich farmland.
Lyons agreed the county should have stayed within the 1,500-acre footprint for developing the former Navy base. West Park must still pass environmental review and needs other county approvals.
Lyons said he won't support West Park if housing is included.
Neither candidate laid much blame on county leaders for the current budget deficits, caused by property and sales tax declines tied to the recession.
Withrow said that before cutting employees who provide direct services to the public, the county should look at consultant contracts, equipment purchases and administrative overhead, and cut public safety last.
Lyons disagreed with the county's policy of across-the-board cuts to balance the 2010-11 budget, because it could force some departments to cut more deeply into essential services.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.