9/10/22 11:40 am: We have updated this article to include a reference to Brenda Haynes political connections.
On Thursday September 8, James Rickert mingled in the hallway of Anderson City Hall with a couple dozen other Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.) residents as they waited for the board to end its closed session. Periodically referring to a binder full of district-related paperwork, Rickert listened to spirited conversation between other community members, occasionally answering questions and sharing ideas with the small crowd.
Like many residents of A.C.I.D., Rickert, a rancher, agricultural real estate appraiser, and organic strawberry farmer, has been learning all he can about what led to a critical water shortage in the service area this year. The district, which delivers water diverted from the Sacramento River to more than 700 irrigation customers, has held senior water rights in California for more than a century. This year, in the midst of a historic California drought, those long-standing water rights were severely curtailed by federal officials to only 18 percent of their normal.
The ACID board delivered news of the Bureau of Reclamation’s water cuts to the public at an April board meeting, just before voting to cancel the district’s irrigation season because, they said, available water would not be enough to equitably distribute to users. The board then sold the remaining water allocations to other districts that same day for a net $7.5 million dollars, leaving the small district flush with cash. That money is still unallocated five months later, as district residents face the steep costs of drought alone: paying to truck water to their homes for domestic use, buy hay for their hungry livestock, and re-dig wells gone dry without the usual groundwater refilling from the A.C.I.D. canal.
It’s a series of events that’s inspired Rickert to run for the A.C.I.D. board against current board president Brenda Haynes, who has held her seat since 2001 and has worked for Congressman and rice farmer Doug LaMalfa since 2005. Rickert, the son of long-time county supervisor Mary Rickert, says he’s no politician, but he’s deeply concerned about how the water district has been managed since devastating federal water cuts were announced and he’s ready to step up to serve his community.
He’s also alleging corruption by the sitting board. In a speech delivered during the board’s public comment period on September 8, Rickert said he’d been offered a consulting position by the board in exchange for not running against Haynes in this fall’s election.
The accusation deeply angered board member Ray Eliante, who said in a brief interview after the meeting that the insinuation that the board’s recent offer of a consulting position was somehow connected to Rickert’s political run against Haynes was “offensive,” “very inaccurate,” and a “flagrant lie” for political gain.
Screenshots shared with Shasta Scout, appear to show Haynes inviting Rickert to join her and Eliante at the Anderson City Hall community room for a meeting on August 11 at 1 pm, shortly before the board’s scheduled meeting at 2 to discuss “an idea.” In further text messages which appear to have been sent to Rickert later that afternoon around 4:30, during the board’s closed session meeting time, Eliante tells Rickert that the board has unanimously agreed to offer him a consulting position “and maybe even an honorary board position.”
Eliante confirmed Thursday that the board did unanimously vote to offer a consulting position to Rickert during a discussion that was not listed on the agenda for the August 11 board meeting. Asked how the board was legally able to hold such a discussion without first placing it on the agenda, Eliante said merely, “it didn’t have to be agendized.”
Under California’s public meeting transparency law, known as the Brown Act, items discussed during public meetings must be placed on the agenda and posted in a public location at least 72 hours prior to the meeting. The Brown Act also narrowly specifies what kinds of agenda items may be included in a closed session. Discussions of an offer for an unpaid consultancy do not appear to fall within the confines of Brown Act law for closed public meeting sessions. The board also did not include the decision in board minutes or by reporting it to the public after the closed session.
Referring to elected official Haynes as “the backbone of this organization,” Eliante said while the board’s consulting offer was unconnected to Rickert’s candidacy, it was true that he didn’t want to see Rickert run against Haynes for the board position because “both are valuable and I would hate to see one cancel out the other.”
Rickert said the board’s consulting offer, which he assumed would be paid, did briefly delay the announcement of his candidacy for the board. “I work hard,” Rickert said, “I do consulting projects in agriculture and water so I thought about it . . . But I sat through the board meeting (that day) and watched how the board operates and I thought, ‘no, I need to run, we need to make a change here.’”
Both Haynes and Eliante have questioned Rickert’s stated motivations for running for the board, saying they believe his hope is to gain control of the board’s recent financial windfall. Rickert said he does hope to help decide how that money is spent because he wants to ensure it’s used for finding and implementing proactive solutions that make future irrigation possible for the district’s water users.
“I would love to have that money be invested into the community,” Rickert said. “I don’t want to see that money just sitting in a bank account. We need to invest it into our future.”
This article is part of a Shasta Scout series about the causes, effects and solutions to water shortages within the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.). You can see the rest of the series here. If you have a personal experience to share or questions you’d like answered, contact us at [email protected] or on Facebook or Instagram. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.
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