Agriculture

Westlands board member resigns. Alludes to sexism, blames general manager for unfair scrutiny

Sarah Woolf, a farmer and longtime agriculture advocate, resigned from the Westlands Water District board of directors.
Sarah Woolf, a farmer and longtime agriculture advocate, resigned from the Westlands Water District board of directors. Fresno Bee File Photo

Sarah Woolf, a member of one of Fresno County’s most prominent farming families and a longtime agriculture advocate, has abruptly resigned from the board of the Westlands Water District.

Woolf turned in her letter of resignation last week as the tension between her and the district’s general manager, Tom Birmingham, reached a breaking point. Woolf said she could no longer serve out her term that expires in 2021 because of the increased scrutiny, rumors and accusations leveled at her and her water management company, Water Wise.

“Unfortunately, my tenure at Westlands has been tenuous,” Woolf wrote in her letter. “It has been an uphill battle to be heard by the establishment in an attempt to direct our district in a more collaborative and progressive direction. This effort has resulted in an ongoing effort by some to find flaws in any activity I partake in in Westlands or in any other water districts I have interests in.”

Through her company, Woolf assists growers with the paperwork involved in moving water, billing, and other documentation associated with being a part of Westlands. As the nation’s largest water district, Westlands provides irrigation water to about 700 family farms, spread out over 1,000 square miles in western Fresno and Kings counties.

In and outside of Westlands, the Woolf and Clark families are well known as trailblazing farmers and large-scale growers of almonds, garlic and processing tomatoes. Sarah Woolf, whose maiden name is Clark, also served as the district’s spokeswoman for several years.

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Woolf believes her continued outspokenness and questioning of the board’s decisions made her a target by Birmingham. She also wonders whether her treatment would have been different if she were a man. She is the only woman serving on the board and is just the second woman board member in the district’s 66-year history.

“All the time I have worked in farming I have never been offended by anyone in the industry,” she said. “But in that board room there is a different feeling. I felt like I had to be really thoughtful when I spoke. And not that I wasn’t allowed to speak, it’s just that I’d have to wait for the right moment to be listened to.”

Woolf began to notice that the more she raised issues and asked questions about the district, the more the work of her company was scrutinized for potential conflicts of interest. Prior to launching the company in 2014 she met with a lawyer and the district to make sure everything was legal.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would get myself or my clients in trouble,” Woolf said. “And no one ever said it was a problem.”

The issue came to a head recently when the district’s general counsel asked Woolf to clarify a few details about a pending water transfer involving one of her clients. The district wanted to clarify a few details, Woolf said.

“I told them I didn’t feel comfortable answering their questions if I didn’t know what they were looking for and I also asked if we can meet with my attorney,” she said.

Then Woolf found out that the district called a special closed-door session to discuss the water transfer. She was unable to attend, and couldn’t get an answer about what the problem was.

“At that point I had enough,” she said. “I was tired of feeling like I had to watch my back all the time and I was feeling very unproductive. I might have been able to put up with all the angst, if I felt we were making progress as a board, but I didn’t see that. We don’t have a strategic plan and we have not sat down and been thoughtful about what our future will look like.”

Gayle Holman,e spokeswoman for Westlands, said the district “does not have a comment at this time.” Also declining to comment was Dan Errotabere, vice president of the board.

“This is an internal issue and I wish I could comment, but I can’t,” he said.

John Harris, one of the San Joaquin Valley’s leading growers, said it was a shame Woolf resigned. Harris, who is partners with a member of the Woolf family in an almond growing and processing operation, said Woolf was doing a good job as a board member, including asking tough questions.

“I think there is some complacency within the district,” Harris said. “Tom has done much for the district and is one of the most knowledgeable people about water in the West, but when someone has been in a position for so long it can be difficult to accept new ideas.”

Birmingham has a lengthy career at Westlands, having served as general manager for the past 18 years. He also served concurrently as the district’s general counsel for many years, before the board divided those jobs in 2016. To his critics, Birmingham is viewed as polarizing.

Woolf readily admits there was no love loss between the two of them. She was not a fan of his leadership style that at times, she said, was adversarial.

“Tom is a brilliant man and he will continue to do amazing things in the water world but his managerial skills are not something that the district needs right now,” Woolf said. “I don’t think there was a misunderstanding of how we feel about it each other. And it also wouldn’t surprise me that he would be happy that I am gone. I’m fine with that. I don’t need everyone to like me.”

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