IRRIGON - An acrimonious crowd of water users called for the resignation of a West Extension Irrigation District board member and the district's manager at a board meeting Wednesday night.

The group was angry over recent election law violations by board member Dan Steiner and district manager Bev Bridgewater.

"We expect from you people to represent us honestly and straightforwardly," said Irrigon resident Larry Nelson, who was among about 80 water users at the board meeting. "You made a mistake. You violated the law and you should step down."

Substantial water rate increases recently approved by the board also were a source of anger in the crowd. While district officials insist the increases are needed to pay for major repairs and maintenance to the aging water delivery system, several water users accused the board of poor planning and careless management.

"You folks should have done your homework to start with," said one woman in the audience. "We can't afford to pay out the nose for your engineering mistakes."

Many of the district's smallest water users have been fighting the board's decision last year to increase the annual water delivery fee for the first acre or fraction of an acre. Under the schedule approved in 2002, the first-acre fee is $240. Most of Oregon's irrigation districts charge about $100 for the first acre. The fee for delivering water to additional acreage also went up, from $42 to $48 per acre. Because the largest increase was applied to the first acre, landowners with smaller lots experienced a bigger rate increase than those with larger parcels.

The board agreed to hold a special meeting Monday, March 3, to clearly explain the budget and the reasons behind the rate increases.

According to district officials, the decision to increase the fee was due largely to rising power costs, as well as growing maintenance and repair costs, including the cost of replacing decaying steel pipes, Bridgewater said.

The 10,273-acre West Extension Irrigation District extends about 26 miles along the Columbia River, from the banks of the Umatilla River to about four miles west of Boardman. Created as part of a 1905 federal reclamation project, its six employees maintain 40 miles of ditches serving 940 irrigators. Only 16 of its members irrigate more than 100 acres.

The election law violation was discovered when the state elections office, in consultation with the state Attorney Generals' office, found that Steiner violated state law when he directed Bridgewater, a public employee, to assist with the production and distribution of a district newsletter that included articles he wrote that appeared to endorse board director Dalarie Philippi in a recall election last year. A state investigation found Steiner and Bridgewater illegally used public resources to campaign for Philippi.

While public employees may provide impartial elections information, state elections law prohibits the use of public employee work time for political purposes to lead voters to support or oppose a ballot measure or candidate. The use of public funds for political purposes is also illegal, but is not a violation of state elections law.

Under state law, the maximum fine for violation of election law is $250, but noting that this was Steiner's first violation, the elections compliance officials fined him only $100. Because Bridgewater's role in the violation was only clerical, and assisting with the newsletter is a normal part of her job, she was not fined.

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