The ongoing debate between Turlock Irrigation District lineworkers and management dominated TurlockCityNews.com's first-ever TID Candidate Forum, held Tuesday at Turlock's American Legion Hall.
The forum was attended by three of the four challengers for two seats: both Division 5 challengers, incumbent farmer Ron Macedo and retired irrigation worker Darrel Monroe, and Division 3 incumbent agribusinessman Joe Alamo. The Division 3 challenger, Dan Agundez, a retired electric supervisor, was unable to attend due to a prior engagement.
Of 20 audience questions submitted, nine were related to the dispute. A further five questions looked to attack a specific candidate in this heated race.
The lineworker dispute dates back to December 2011, when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' contract with TID expired. Though negotiations have proceeded since then, the two sides remain far apart.
The situation escalated in September 2012, when all TID lineworkers did not answer calls to fix downed electricity lines. The outage, which TID management blamed on the labor dispute, left 45 customers without power for 48 hours.
Despite the contentious situation, negotiations are still continuing with the IBEW.
“We've been working in good faith with our negotiating team,” Alamo said. “We will continue the negotiations, and we're going to find an agreement as soon as possible.”
But that agreement might not come until after the election is completed, Alamo said, as he believes the IBEW is banking on electing labor-friendly candidates. Agundez is a former member of the IBEW, which has donated to his campaign.
Monroe, a former TID water distribution operator whose father was a linemen, says the problem isn't the union: it's the management.
“I believe it can be fixed by changing this management and the board,” Monroe said. “That's what I'm here for, is the people. … Until something is done with the GM (Casey Hashimoto) there will be no negotiations because he is carrying a vendetta.”
Two audience questions specifically asked for a response to comments from Hashimoto that he “lost respect” for IBEW employees after the September 2012 outage.
“I don't think it will have any bearing on negotiations,” Macedo said, noting he has a lot of respect for the IBEW employees.
It's a TID director's job to balance between IBEW's wants and needs and customers' wants and needs, Macedo said. And it's a fine line to walk to keep the rates low, while keeping employees fairly compensated.
Monroe called for a return to the days of yore, which he said would reduce rates. Firing managers, adding more lineworkers, and ending the use of contract employees from Texas are among his priorities.
The district is wasting money, and sending it to Texas, rather than hiring more local workers, Monroe said.
But the incumbents say that the hiring of contractors came because of a need to ensure reliability for TID ratepayers. Since the lineworkers union failed to get the power back on last September, the board wanted a guaranteed backup plan – hence the contract crews.
“I know it's not the most popular choice, but that's the way it is right now,” Macedo said.
Alamo, too, noted his commitment to reliability.
“I'm going to do everything I can to get the power back on,” Alamo said. “If I could, I'd climb the poles myself.”
The lineworker dispute wasn't the only item discussed Tuesday.
Both Macedo and Alamo noted challenges associated with the state's renewable energy mandates, which require TID source a percentage of its power from green sources.
“I'm doing everything I can to maintain a status quo electricity bill,” Macedo said. “But it's expensive to get green energy.”
Both Macedo and Alamo noted that rates have increased specifically because of the high costs of green energy. The only rate increase since Macedo or Alamo were elected has come in the form of an “environmental charge,” not a base rate increase.
And the need to relicense TID's Don Pedro Reservoir while maintaining the district's water rights was noted as a top priority, too.
Through the relicensing process, many environmental groups are fighting for a share of TID's water. And a State Water Board proposal would see the district lose 35 percent of its water – or more – to benefit fish populations, fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land.
“Hopefully we're not going to have to deal with that, and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen,” Macedo said. “Water is the lifeblood of our economy here, and we certainly don't want to see any flows go down the river.”
Macedo, noting his experience as State Director of the California Farm Bureau, said he'd be able to perfect TID's message to the federal government to ensure the water stays local. TID is a model for sustainability, he said, which uses the water better than anyone else around, benefiting farmers and groundwater users alike.
Monroe's tactic was more straightforward.
“I wouldn't give them a drop over my dead, cold hands,” Monroe said.
As the debate wound down – after a few audience outbursts – each candidate made closing remarks.
Alamo painted himself as an accessible dairyman and farmer, trying to represent the ratepayers' interests. Macedo touted his farming roots and state connections, which he believes will help the district secure its water future.
And Monroe, casting himself as the outsider with inside information, positioned himself as an agent of change to what he sees as a “conspiracy” at TID.
“It's up to you people,” Monroe said. “But it looks like to me, and I've dealt with this for years, there's a conspiracy going on here. … It starts with the board, and it filters right on down through the management.”
The recorded debate is available for viewing below.
Ron Macedo, Division 5
Darrel Monroe, Division 5 (Did not return questionnaire)