Robb Whitaker, the Water Replenishment District general manager whose retirement announcement triggered months of infighting, will make his exit today, Friday, just as the search for the district’s next leader begins again.
Whitaker is concluding 17 years at the helm of the water district, where he spent the bulk of his career. He is credited with championing visionary programs and projects that allowed the district to rely solely on local water resources.
“We don’t buy any imported water. We are sustainable, but we need to make the region sustainable,” said John Allen, the water board’s president. “He was a driving force in that, he had the vision. He had to pull us through some very, very tough times, when nobody liked us.”
Allen described Whitaker as a “superstar” with well-established contacts at every level throughout the water industry. “Nobody is irreplaceable, but he comes close,” Allen said.
In prepared statements, Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, and U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte, praised Whitaker’s work to ensure safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities and his work to create a sustainable future for the region, respectively.
Honor To Serve
In an interview, Whitaker said it has been an honor to serve the 4 million people residing in the 43 cities that make up WRD’s service area. Whitaker was hired at the district in 1991 and became the general manager in November 2003.
“For someone who loves working on water resources, like I did and do, WRD provided great opportunities to really get involved in the many aspects of water supply issues in southern L.A. County,” Whitaker said. “We’re fortunate in our region to have supplies that can be developed as alternative to water being imported from the Bay Delta and the Colorado River, allowing that water to be used by regions that don’t have the local resources to develop.”
Whitaker plans to use his new free time to feed the “gear head” side of his brain by returning to the types of projects he worked on with his father growing up.
“I grew up helping him restore cars and build custom motorcycles, and weld metal — or what he called burning metal,” he said. “I have made a list of things to do over the years that would take me another 30 years to accomplish, that have nothing to do with water. I have a lot of things I want to work on and I am enthused to begin that chapter of my life.”
WRD is contracting with the Cordoba Corp. to temporarily borrow an employee, Stephan Tucker, a retired Los Angeles Department of Water and Power assistant general manager, for six months while the search for Whitaker’s replacement is carried out. Tucker is expected to start April 1 and the district’s two assistant general managers will manage day-to-day operations until then.
The board renewed an agreement with Roberts Consulting Inc. to carry out the search in February and is expected to go over the brochure advertising the position at its next meeting March 18. The search will focus on candidates who have experience with Southern California’s “unique and complex water needs,” according to a staff report.
It is expected to conclude by the end of June, though the board is contracted to retain Tucker until the end of September if additional time is needed.
Whitaker’s retirement announcement in September 2020 created a political struggle over his replacement.
The water board originally hired Roberts Consulting to carry out the executive recruitment process, but then halted the search in November. A majority of board members jumped behind a push by then-board President Vera Robles DeWitt to hire former Carson Mayor Albert Robles for the district’s top spot. Robles, a lifelong politician, had little direct experience leading a public agency, but the board’s majority felt his decades of experience as a WRD board member would translate effectively to the general manager’s position.
Critics accused the board members of trying to a give a political ally a high-paying job that would reportedly increase the value of his pension by millions. Amid the backlash, board member Willard Murray Jr. switched sides and instead backed a proposal to hire Tucker through the Cordoba Corp. Murray later supported removing DeWitt as board president.
In an email, DeWitt said she still has concerns the contract with Cordoba was not properly vetted. She wished Whitaker well in his retirement.
“Whitaker did a good job while at WRD,” she said. “While not perfect, his vision helped accomplish many important projects.”
She pointed to the Albert Robles Center for Water Recycling and Environmental Learning as an example, stating it will save communities money by replenishing groundwater basins with recycled water.
Whitaker, who offered to delay his retirement until the end of the year to quell the fighting, said he has put off retirement two or three times in the past two years to ensure he leaves the district in a stable state. Despite the controversy earlier this year, he feels the time is right and that the work toward sustainability will continue. He is now content to watch from the sidelines as WRD accomplishes those next steps, he said.
“It was always my hope that I could leave at a time when it seemed like things were moving in a direction where the next generation of leaders could take over and build from that momentum,” he said. “We were positioned to do that when I announced in September, and things got a little off track, and I was willing to stay longer to help assure a seamless transition. I feel comfortable we’re in that position now.”