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Westlands GM gets contract extension despite grower objections

 •  by Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Tom Birmingham, general manager Westland Water District. SOURCE: California State University Fresno

During a contentious Westlands Water District meeting on Tuesday where growers spoke out against district leadership, board members voted 8-1 to extend General Manager Tom Birmingham’s contract another three years.

As has been the district’s recent practice, the contract extension came a year before Birmingham’s contract expires.

Westlands growers criticized Birmingham, expressed frustration at the priorities of the district and denounced the early contract extension.

“I did not move from a dictatorship into a democracy…to be quiet and not say what is right,” said Farid Assemi, whose family moved to Fresno County from Iran. The Assemi brothers have become powerhouse growers in California, even successfully challenging the Wonderful Company to establish their own nut processing company. The family is also one of Fresno’s most prominent developers through its company, Granville Homes.

“We are the most challenged water district and you want to perpetuate this?” Assemi said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Elections are supposed to elect new managers if they choose to be. You are trying to preempt that?” Westlands, which covers western Fresno County, is the largest water district in California.

William Bourdeau, executive vice president of Harris Farms, was the only board member who voted against the contract extension.

“I would describe this as one of the more difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a board member,” said Bourdeau before the vote. He emphasized the need for “measurable expectations” of the general manager and a more clearly defined path for succession.

Bourdeau did not respond to requests for comment.

Birmingham became the general manager of Westlands in 2000. This is not the first time the board has extended his contract early; it did so in 2015 as well. Including benefits, Birmingham made more than $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.

During the meeting, Birmingham said he spoke with board members in October and let them know they were coming up on a year before his contract’s end and that they should decide whether they wanted him to retire.

“My preference is not to retire,” said Birmingham at the meeting. “But if the board were of the view that I should retire then the board should make that decision.”

Board members discussed the need for more robust performance reviews and a better plan for selecting a successor to Birmingham.

“I would recommend that the board seriously remember what they’ve said here today,” said Sarah Woolf, district farmer, water consultant and former Westlands board member, at the meeting. “If you’re going to have a performance evaluation, then do it. If you’re going to set goals, then do it. If you’re going to have a plan for his succession, then do it. These things have to be started and get done.”

In 2018, Woolf resigned from the Westlands board after six years. She cited disapproval over Birmingham’s management and how the district conducts business as part of the reason for her departure.

Some growers echoed similar sentiments at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I farm in six other irrigation districts in addition to Westlands and I have to say that the managers of every one of those districts is friendly and treats me as a client and a friend,” said Tom Coleman, district grower. “Mr. Birmingham I think treats us as though we were an adversary.”

Rebecca Kaser, another district grower, urged board members to reconsider the contract extension.

“I think we’re entering a new water era and I think a fresh perspective and strategy should be welcomed by the board,” said Kaser at the meeting.

“This water district, I might not be exact, probably has more lawsuits than any other water district. This water district is disliked more than any other water district. This water district has the least amount of friends in the water world,” said district grower Assemi. “We are in peril, we have nothing.”

Assemi expressed shock at the leadership of Westlands, particularly the lack of storage and groundwater recharge efforts in the district. He said growers are now paying the price for not having paid close enough attention to how the board was running the district.

“I’ve been told, ‘Farid, if you go and speak out, the tradition of Westlands Water District is you will be punished.’ So be it,” said Assemi of opposing the contract extension. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s the moral thing to do.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
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