Westlands Water District named its chief operating officer, Jose Gutierrez to oversee the sprawling district in western Fresno County until it hires a new general manager.
Gutierrez will serve as interim general manager until May. The added duties will come with an additional $50,000 to Gutierrez’ $240,000 annual salary, the board announced at its Dec. 20 meeting.
The meeting was also the final one for longtime, controversial General Manager Tom Birmingham who took the opportunity to praise district staff and the many board members he has worked with since starting out with the district in 1986.
He noted that his first case with Westlands was to defend the district against a lawsuit over drainage issues brought by neighboring irrigators, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors.
Clay layers in some parts of Westlands trap water that can become toxic with salts and kill plants. Draining and disposing of that water created environmental issues in other areas, prompting legal actions.
“I had hoped that before I rode off into the sunset that issue would be resolved,” he said of drainage problems that continue to plague the district.
Birmingham became well-known for his staunch, some called it caustic, defense of Westlands. That defense often included a strong offense where the district sued the federal government and even environmental groups.
The board on Tuesday presented Birmingham with a plaque that included a very long list of accomplishments and applauded him with a standing ovation.
Birmingham announced his resignation from the board in November after an election brought in a group of so-called “change” candidates whose first order of business was to replace him.
Growers had become increasingly frustrated by what they saw as Birmingham’s focus on litigation and lobbying for new legislation at the expense of creating collaborative programs closer to home with other water districts, surrounding communities and advocacy groups.
They were also concerned by what they saw as the district’s lackadaisical attitude toward the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, particularly in terms of creating more water recharge.
Issues came to a boiling point at Westlands’s December 2021 meeting when board members agreed to extend Birmingham’s contract another three years, to Nov. 2024, a full year before the current contract was set to expire.
A number of Westlands growers spoke out angrily at the meeting. In the end, the extension passed on an 8 to 1 vote. (Contract discussions begin at hour 1:23)
Per that contract amendment, Birmingham will be eligible for a severance equal to his monthly salary multiplied by the number of months left in his term.
Birmingham’s salary was $420,000 a year, or $35,000 a month. With 23 months left in his term, that means he may take home a severance amount of $805,000.
Recruitment for a new general manager will begin as soon as possible, according to Westlands’ staff.
In other business, the board voted to change its meeting times from 1 p.m. to 9 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month.
The next regular board meeting will be Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.