Westlands Water District, which has come under fire from farmers and the federal government over its financial and other dealings, has decided it no longer wants its general manager to also function as the district’s top lawyer, agency officials said Monday.
Tom Birmingham no longer will serve as both general manager and general counsel of Fresno-based Westlands, the largest agricultural water district in the nation. He will remain as general manager, but the board is seeking new legal representation, said Westlands board President Don Peracchi.
“The board concluded that the complexities involved in securing water supply, groundwater management and other challenges facing the district require the full attention of the general manager,” Peracchi said.
Birmingham has served as the general manager since 2000. He had served as general counsel concurrently from October 2000 to May 2010, when the district hired former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson as its legal representation. Manson, also a former Sacramento County superior court judge, retired in August 2015, and Birmingham was re-appointed general counsel.
Peracchi said the change will “promote more transparency and good government practices, and represents the beginning of a process to improve the decision-making and operations of the district.”
The district has faced criticism over transparency and its governing practices.
The Securities and Exchange Commission fined Westlands $150,000 in March for allegedly misrepresenting its revenues and debts during the sale of bonds in 2012. It also fined Birmingham $50,000 for negligence related to Westlands’ violation.
The Associated Press reported June 9 that in 2007 Westlands gave then-assistant general manager Jason Peltier a $1.4 million loan at a low interest rate to buy a riverfront home in Walnut Grove, south of Sacramento. The loan has not been repaid. Westlands told the AP that the deal was legal and had not been disclosed publicly because it was made during a closed-session board meeting.
Westlands spokeswoman Gayle Holman said the move to separate job functions was not designed to punish Birmingham, but rather it will allow him to focus on the challenges surrounding supplying water to 600,000 acres of farmland – about one-third of which has been left fallow due to lack of water.
Brad Gleason, a Fresno County farmer and Westlands customer, has been an outspoken critic of the district’s leadership during a difficult time for the central San Joaquin Valley.
“If the board is headed on the wrong path due to someone like the general manager, the counsel can tell them,” Gleason said Monday. “When you have the same person in both capacities, the board doesn’t get that proper segregation of duties.”
Gleason believes some of Westlands’ recent issues may not have happened if its board had “another set of eyes and ears to advise” it. He added that the board still has work to do.
“The board needs to continue to evaluate the capabilities of its leadership, and, given the challenges, make a case that they have the right person making decisions.”