FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — A Fresno County farming company sued its water district this week, claiming the district knows it uses an unfair system to elect the water board but refuses to change it.
“The goal of this lawsuit is to achieve an equitable system that is compatible with the Constitution, so all landowners are given their proper voting rights,” Turk Station Pistachio LLC’s attorney Brian Whelan said of the lawsuit against Westlands Water District interview.
“Westland is going in the right direction, but they needed an extra push before they could get the issue resolved,” Whelan said in an interview.
Water board members can vote on how landowners develop their land, so a fair election system is crucial, Whelan said.
“Our concern is that they have known about this problem for a while, but wanted to push it off until after the next election. Kicking the can down the road is not an acceptable outcome,” the attorney said.
“I do hope we can resolve this out of court, but we had to file a lawsuit to get them going. If the board isn’t motivated by a lawsuit, they will be motivated by an order of the court, which they will have to follow.”
All landowners can vote every two years to elect members to Westlands’ nine-member board, but their votes are weighted depending on which administrative area their land is in, Turk Station, a pistachio grower, says in its May 8 complaint in Superior Court.
“Westlands’ current voting methodology dilutes the vote of certain Priority Area Number Two landowners, of which plaintiff is one. In contrast, Priority Area Number One landowners receive over five times as many votes per acre,” the complaint states.
Priority Area Number Two landowners get 18 votes per acre because their land is assessed at $18 per acre, while Priority Area Number One landowners get 100 votes per acre because their land is valued at $100 per acre, Turk Station says.
“Despite the fact that Westlands acknowledges that the ‘assessment book benefits bestowed voting’ methodology it employs is unfair and flawed, it has decided to continue to employ this unfair voting method” in violation of the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions, the complaint states.
Westlands, formed in 1952, is the largest water district in Fresno County. It provides water from the Central Valley and California State Water Projects to 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings County in the San Joaquin Valley.
Roughly 600 farmers own land in the area, growing a wide variety of crops, including tomatoes, grapes, cotton and nuts. These cash crops rake in about $1 billion a year, averaging about $1,700 in gross revenue per acre and accounting for more than 20 percent of Fresno County’s total agricultural output, according to Westlands Water District figures.
The Water Code allows Westlands to create special assessment books for projects that give certain landowners more benefits than others, such as a new pipeline that benefits only landowners in a particular region. In turn, landowners who derive the benefit from the project may be asked to pay more for it.
Turk Station says this system may have made sense when it was implemented to repay the 1965-era federal contract that built the district’s distribution and drainage systems, but it ignores the other benefits afforded to all landowners from Westlands’ water storage and delivery operations.
At a meeting on March 21, Westlands’ board members acknowledged that many landowners take issue with the voting system, and agreed to consider amending it to a one vote per acre method. But the board took no action and left the system in place, according to the complaint.
Turk Station then sent the board a draft version of its lawsuit and demanded “prompt and corrective action” at the next board meeting to make the voting system equitable.
But the board again took no action to resolve the issue other than directing a consultant to study a new assessment method so that “staff may (or may not) develop a new assessment book that may (or may not) be brought to the board upon which a new voting methodology may (or may not) be based,” the complaint states.
Turk Station says this wishy-washy resolution is not good enough. If the board does not fix the problem by election time in October, Turk Station and other Priority Area Number Two landowners’ votes will not carry the same weight as landowners in Priority Area Number One, creating damages for which there is no legal compensation.
The water district says its election system is perfectly legal.
“Any landowner or a designated or legal representative of a landowner in the district is eligible to run for the board of director position,” water district spokeswoman Gayle Holman told Courthouse News in an email. “Board elections for the position of director are conducted every two years, and as such are elected to four-year terms of office. Westlands Water District board of director elections have always been conducted in accordance with state and federal law.”
Turk Station seeks declaratory judgment that Westlands’ election system is unconstitutional, an injunction, and writ of mandate directing Westlands to stay the next election until it adopts a one vote per acre voting system.