At a controversial Westlands Water District meeting on Tuesday where growers spoke out against district leadership, board members voted 8 to 1 to extend Managing Director Tom Birmingham’s contract by three years.
As has been recent practice in the District, the contract extension came one year before the Birmingham contract expired.
Westlands producers have slammed Birmingham, expressed frustration with the district’s priorities and denounced the early contract extension.
âI did not go from a dictatorship to a democracy. . . shut up and not say what’s right, âsaid Farid Assemi, whose family moved to Fresno from Iran.
The Assemi brothers became powerful growers in California, even successfully challenging the Wonderful Company to start their own nut processing business. The family is also one of Fresno’s biggest developers through their company, Granville Homes. (GV Homes is the publisher of GV Wire.)
“We are the most troubled water district and you want to perpetuate this? Assemi said during Tuesday’s meeting. âElections are supposed to elect new managers if they choose to be. Are you trying to anticipate this? “
Westlands, which covers western Fresno County, is the largest agricultural hydraulic district in the United States. The district says on its website that it produces “crops worth $ 2 billion (which generate) more than $ 6 billion in agriculture-related economic activity each year, supporting nearly 60,000 jobs “.
Harris Farms vice president opposes contract extension
William Bourdeau, executive vice president of Harris Farms, was the only board member to vote against extending the contract.
âI would describe this as one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make as a board member,â Bourdeau said before the vote. He stressed the need for âmeasurable expectationsâ from the CEO and a more clearly defined succession path.
Bourdeau did not respond to requests for comment.
Birmingham became the Managing Director of Westlands in 2000. This is not the first time that the Board of Directors has extended his contract early; he also did so in 2015. Including employee benefits, Birmingham earned over $ 497,000 in 2019 according to the most recent data on Transparent California. Tuesday’s renewal will extend his contract until November 30, 2024.
Birmingham declined to comment through a district spokesperson.
Birmingham: Do you want me to retire?
During the meeting, Birmingham said he spoke to board members in October and let them know they were arriving a year before his contract ended and they would have to decide if they wanted that he retires.
âMy preference is not to retire,â Birmingham said at the meeting. “But if the board was of the opinion that I should retire, then the board should make that decision.”
Board members discussed the need for stronger performance reviews and a better plan for selecting a successor in Birmingham.
Former Board Member Says District Needs Plan, Goals
âI would recommend that the council seriously remember what it said here today,â said Sarah Woolf, district farmer, water consultant and former Westlands council member, at the meeting. âIf you’re going to have a performance review, then do it. If you set goals for yourself, do it. If you want to have a plan for his estate, do it. These things must be started and done.
In 2018, Woolf resigned from the Westlands board after six years. She cited disapproval of Birmingham’s management and the way the district conducts its business as the reason for her departure.
Some producers echoed similar sentiments during Tuesday’s reunion.
âI farm in six other irrigation districts besides Westlands and have to say the managers in each of those districts are friendly and treat me like a customer and a friend,â said Tom Coleman, district grower. âSir. Birmingham, I think, treats us like we’re an adversary.
Assemi: “We are in danger”
Rebecca Kaser, another district producer, urged board members to reconsider extending the contract.
âI think we are entering a new era of water and I think a new perspective and a new strategy should be welcomed by the board,â Kaser said at the meeting.
âThis river basin district, I may not be correct, probably has more lawsuits than any other river basin district. This water district is hated more than any other water district. This water district has the fewest friends in the water world, âAssemi said. “We are in danger, we have nothing.”
Assemi expressed shock at Westlands leadership, especially the lack of groundwater storage and recharge efforts in the district. He said growers are now paying the price for not paying enough attention to how the council is running the district.
âI was told, ‘Farid, if you’re going to speak up, Westlands Water District tradition is that you get punished.’ So be it, âAssemi said, opposing the contract extension. âI don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s the moral thing to do.
About SJV Eau
SJV Water is an independent, non-profit news site dedicated to water coverage in the San Joaquin Valley.