A meeting that was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era of teamwork for a local water district dissolved into a shouting match Tuesday morning. The audience and board members for the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District bickered with one another after the meeting was abruptly adjourned by new chairman Bryan Pilkington.
Earlier, a former board member, John Ferreira, stood up and raised his voice at Pilkington, who was once the district's most outspoken critic.
"You are an obstructionist," Ferreira told Pilkington, as he paced around the library's community room. "Enjoy your next two years. You are so done. You're worthless."
Pilkington fired back and said he could do as he wished.
"I'm chairman of the board, and I adjourn this meeting," he said.
Directors and members of the public discussed issues facing the district for more than two hours after the meeting ended. Yet no action was taken addressing the region's groundwater overdraft or district's financial hardships, as the agenda had indicated.
District general manager Ed Steffani, who announced his retirement in September, said after the meeting he was officially done with his position. Steffani had earlier said he would remain with the district until a suitable replacement could be found. However, he said Tuesday would be the last meeting he attended as general manager.
"I said I would stay on for a little while, and a little while has come," Steffani said.
The 20-minute meeting
The meeting in the crammed library community room started with the inauguration of newly elected board members Hugh Scanlon, Marden Wilber, Joe Petersen and re-elected member Mark Beck.
Pilkington then skipped several items on the agenda and presented his written plan for using surface water — the same he offered when he ran for the board in 2008. During his brief presentation, Pilkington said he wanted to use natural bodies of water like Duck Creek and Bear Creek to deliver surface water to growers. However, he offered no insight for financial backing of the plan.
Despite protests from Beck and Petersen, Pilkington called for the adjournment of the meeting shortly after being named board chairman. He pushed for the end to the meeting, he said, because evening meetings are needed so more members of the public can attend.
The abrupt end riled many in the audience of about 40 who felt it should continue since all board members were present and the district is facing considerable hardships, such as its difficulty using the water it has a right to and its antiquated infrastructure. However, Pilkington said the issues on the agenda would be dealt with at a later date when more members of the community could participate in the discussion.
Pilkington, who has gone from board dissenter to board leader in less than four years, packed up his briefcase and large district boundary map and left the room. As audience members whispered to one another about what transpired, Beck called for people to stay so important issues could be addressed, even if no action could be taken. Many in the room heeded his request.
The dialogue after
Although the board could not take any actions, Wilber, Petersen and Beck stayed at the table and engaged in dialogue with the audience about how the district can raise money and use its 20,000-acre foot allocation of wet-year water. Scanlon observed some of the post-meeting session from the back of the room for more than an hour before leaving.
Audience members and local water officials expressed their desire to work with the district during the informal session.
"We are here if you need us," said Kevin Kauffman, general manager of the Stockton East Water District. "You can rely on us for support."
Stockton East has provided the district with equipment to conduct research and members of its staff for studies in the past, he said.
While the Northeastern San Joaquin County Groundwater Banking Authority stands behind the district, water resources coordinator Mel Lytle said it needs to resolve its issues so the entire groundwater banking agency can address the region's overdraft.
"We are only as strong as our weakest link," Lytle said.
In a telephone interview after the meeting, Beck expressed disappointment with Pilkington's actions Tuesday.
"He ran on the platform that he was the voice of the people and then he goes out at our biggest regular meeting and slaps them in the face," he said. "How does that look?"
Pilkington did not return calls seeking comment.
Although he did not address many of the items on Tuesday's agenda, Steffani said the an agenda was given to Tom Hoffman, who was still the district's chairman as of last week.
Steffani's resignation came as a surprise to Beck, who said the decision was unfortunate and hopes he can convince Steffani to stick around a little longer.
As a certified engineer, Steffani can conduct studies for potential projects and save the district money because it doesn't need to outsource the work to engineering firms, Beck said.
"If you want to consider building a pipeline or deliver the district's 15-year plan to the state, all the documents have to be signed by an engineer," Beck said. "That costs money, unless you have it done by someone in-house."
As the general manager, Steffani also handled the day-to-day operations of the district, including writing agendas for the board's quarterly meetings. Beck said he wants to try to convince Steffani to continue to work in his engineering role for the district while finding someone else to handle the daily details.
Steffani earns roughly $30,000 a year working part-time for the district.
"Steffani leaving has the potential to cost the district a lot of money," Beck said.
The district's next meeting will be Jan. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Lodi Public Library, located at 201 W. Locust Street.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.