Ed Pattison

Ed Pattison has served as general manager of Tuolumne Utilities District since October 2018.

Ed Pattison is no longer the general manager of Tuolumne Utilities District after the water and sewer agency’s board voted to release him from his contract Thursday afternoon.

The board voted 3-1-1 in closed session at a special meeting to terminate Pattison’s contract without cause before it expired in 2023, despite concerns raised by some in the public about the potential impacts the move could have on several major projects currently underway at TUD.

Directors Ron Ringen, Lisa Murphy and Board President Barbara Balen voted in favor of parting ways with Pattison, while Director Jeff Kerns was opposed and Director David Boatright abstained.

Jesse Barton, TUD’s attorney, said in an email Friday he doesn’t believe ongoing negotiations with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the district to acquire the utility’s water rights and Phoenix Hydroelectric Project in the South Fork Stanislaus River watershed will not be affected by Pattison’s absence.

“I am confident that TUD staff, TUD’s consultants, and my office can handle every aspect of the intended acquisition and that there will be no negative impacts or delays caused by Mr. Pattison’s termination,” he said. “TUD’s Board remains steadfast in its desire to acquire the Phoenix Project and related facilities from PG&E.”

Barton said he and Tom Johnson, the TUD board’s contract negotiator, have been and will continue to be the primary points of contact with PG&E regarding the acquisition.

The process with PG&E was initiated under former TUD General Manager Tom Haglund, who served from November 2015 to June 2018, when the company approached the district about purchasing the water rights and infrastructure, Barton said.

Haglund also was the general manager when the district began working toward a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for additional rights to water out of New Melones Reservoir, which is also still currently ongoing.

“I was involved with both of those with Haglund,” Barton said.

Other major projects that started prior to Pattison taking over as TUD general manager in October 2018 included a nearly $20 million project to upgrade the district’s aging sewage treatment plant in Sonora and the proposed construction of the Sierra Pines treatment plant near Twain Harte.

Barton said Pattison did contribute and accelerate progress on the projects during his time with the district, including obtaining substantial additional funding for the sewage plant upgrades.

“We do not expect Pattison’s absence to create any sort of problems for their progress,” he said.

The move to terminate Pattison’s employment comes less than a week after the board voted 3-1-1, along the same lines, to place him on paid administrative leave until further notice and immediately revoke his access privileges after a closed-session performance evaluation at a special meeting on March 26.

No details have been provided about the specific reasoning behind either decision, with Balen citing confidentiality requirements under laws pertaining to personnel matters.

Barton said Pattison will receive a lump-sum payment for his regular hours worked up to his termination and unused vacation and administrative pay, which equals $33,826.76 before taxes and other deductions.

The contract also entitles Pattison to six months of his salary and medical benefits to be paid in a lump sum if he signs a severance and release agreement, which Barton said he had not done as of Friday afternoon. That could total to more than $100,000 because his salary in November was about $202,500 per year, not including health and retirement benefits.

Pattison said in a phone interview on Friday that he was surprised by the board’s decision.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “We had great accomplishments over the last several years, and I’m deeply humbled that I was able to serve Tuolumne County.”

Among the specific accomplishments cited by Pattison were his contributions at progressing the aforementioned projects, as well as seeing through changes to regulations on the lake level at Pinecrest Reservoir that will allow the district to withdraw more water if needed during times of drought.

Work on the lake-level issue began under former TUD General Manager Pete Kampa, whose contract was similarly terminated by the board in 2013. The previous requirements prevented TUD from taking additional water from the reservoir in 2014 during the height of the most recent drought, which resulted in water-use cutbacks of up to 50%.

“That’s an enormous value for Tuolumne County,” he said. “It had been worked on for 10 years, then in my two years with the organization we were able to get it across the finish line. It balances water supply for Tuolumne County and recreation interests at Pinecrest.”

Pattison, who lives in Modesto with his wife and four children, said he had not yet decided his next step and was first going to take time to celebrate Easter with his family this weekend.

Kerns, who cast the lone dissenting vote against placing Pattison on leave and terminating his contract, said on Friday that he too was disappointed in the decision because he felt the former general manager was accomplishing goals that had long eluded the district in the past.

“That Melones water rights issue has been sitting for 50 years and nobody’s ever done anything on it until Ed came along,” he said.

Bob Rucker, the former TUD board president who decided not to seek reelection last year, was also critical of the decision. He had proposed extending Pattison’s contract through 2025 after the Nov. 3 election, which saw former TUD Director Ron Kopf get voted out after Balen, Murphy and Boatright finished with more votes. 

Rucker’s ultimately unsuccessful proposal also generated controversy for inclusion of extending Pattison’s potential severance from six months to a full year salary if terminated early, because some argued it would hamstring the incoming board.

“He’s the type of person who has the energy, intelligence, the drive, the education and the desire to pull all of these things off and make them happen,” Rucker said. “It takes a special kind of a person to make that happen, not just a person to run the everyday operations of a utilities district.”

The district has already initiated the process of seeking an interim replacement for Pattison.

Balen said on Friday that she couldn’t comment on the specific reasons why she voted in favor of Pattison’s release due to confidentiality as a personnel matter, but she had “100% confidence” in the TUD staff’s ability to continue advancing the projects that are currently underway.

“I feel that the board is 100% committed to ensuring that this county has water now and into the future for growth,” she said. “There is no course correction here. We’re all moving full steam ahead.”

Murphy addressed the board’s decision in a Facebook post after the meeting and acknowledged frustration about not being able to discuss the specifics behind it without possibly opening up TUD to a lawsuit.

“I do think this is what is in the best interest of the county and want to assure you that all things that the district is involved in will move ahead smoothly,” she said. “We have very competent and dedicated TUD staff. Legal (counsel) and contractors have been, and will continue to be, the prime negotiators in our current endeavors.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.

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