Albert Robles

Then-Carson Mayor Albert Robles speaks during a West Basin Municipal Water District board meeting in Carson on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.

The Water Replenishment District of Southern California once again today, Thursday, will consider hiring former Carson Mayor Albert Robles as its general manager, roughly a month after a previous attempt to hire him failed amid pitched infighting among board members.

Board President Vera Robles DeWitt is now recommending the district give Robles a two-year contract at $275,000 annually, instead of the six-month, $137,500 interim role she brought forward unsuccessfully in December. The new proposal ignores repeated calls from stakeholders to conduct a search for candidates and instead would give the job to Robles, a former board member and political ally of DeWitt who does not have a professional background in water management.

If hired, Robles’ pension, built up from three decades of low-paying elected positions, would increase in value by $5.4 million as a result of the sudden jump in his pay, according to analysis by the Southern California News Group. Robles has denied this is his intention and maintains that any such increase would be stopped by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

WRD’s board appeared ready to move in a different direction less than a week ago when a majority supported a recommendation to hire Stephan Tucker, a 30-year veteran of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as interim general manager for six months while the district conducts a search for a permanent administrator. Tucker is employed by the Cordoba Corp. and would be contracted through the company at a monthly rate of $35,700.

WRD provides Long Beach's recycled water and protects the groundwater aquifer with injection wells creating a "salt water barrier."

Split vote expected again

DeWitt’s decision to put Robles on the board’s meeting agenda for Thursday, Jan. 21, again throws a wrench into those plans, and now the board will have to decide between contracts for the two men. The outcome likely will hinge on board member Willard Murray Jr., a swing vote who supported Robles and Tucker at previous meetings.

In an email, DeWitt said she attempted to bring back a contract for Robles in early January, but the matter was delayed by the district’s counsel.

She has concerns about hiring Tucker because she believes it could lead to the Cordoba Corp. having an “unfair advantage” if the company bids on an engineering contract later, she said. She also objects to the $35,750 monthly fee, which she said would add to WRD’s already bloated upper management.

“I’m sure Mr. Tucker is a fine individual, but we are not hiring him,” DeWitt said. “We are hiring a corporation that has just been raided by the L.A. District Attorney’s Office in August.”

Last year, investigators from the District Attorney’s Office searched Cordoba and others associated with a failed solar project in the City of Industry. Tucker did not work for the company during the time period in question and was not involved in the Industry project.

Tarnished reputation?

Board member Rob Katherman, who first recommended Tucker, said hiring Robles would flush the district’s reputation “down the toilet.” He pointed to the objections from half a dozen cities, nine members of Congress, seven state legislators and the district’s union as evidence of the damage that has already been done.

“I’m not anti-Albert, he did a good job when he was on the board,” Katherman said in an interview. “We didn’t always agree, but I think he did a good job, but that doesn’t make him qualified to be a general manager.”

Katherman wants a general manager with an extensive background in project management and construction who can continue the district’s ongoing efforts to reduce the region’s reliance on imported water, he said.

He is “hopeful and optimistic” his colleagues will still vote in favor of hiring Tucker. A majority of the board supported hiring Robles in December, but two weeks later there were not enough votes to approve his contract because two board members left the meeting early.

“You have to give Ms. DeWitt and Albert credit. They are stubborn and fighting for what they want,” Katherman said. “The rest of us are equally stubborn and fighting for what we feel is the right thing to do, which is to have an interim general manager and then go out for a search.”

Robles defends himself

Robles rejects criticisms about his background. Other districts have general managers without engineering backgrounds, he said. He served for 25 years on WRD’s board and, while the elected position was not full time, he said he put in full-time hours and developed a deep understanding of the district’s inner workings.

“I think it’s ironic how these detractors of mine say how great WRD is, but they forget that I was there playing a role in making WRD great,” he said.

Robles attributes objections to his hiring to personal vendettas. He is confident he can mend the political fences if he is hired.

“The easiest part of this process will be what happens afterwards, and that is demonstrating to them unequivocally that I was the best choice,” Robles said. “Our ratepayers, our constituents, will be provided a top-notch experience. That’s how I will win them over.”

No link to raids

Though Robles said he does not like being pitted against Tucker, he also pointed to the raid at Cordoba and a separate raid at the Los Angeles Department of Public Works offices in July 2019 as a reason to not hire Tucker. Neither Robles nor DeWitt has directly alleged Tucker was involved in those matters.

In the LADWP case, FBI agents served search warrants at the department’s headquarters and L.A. City Hall as part of a probe into a series of lawsuits over DWP’s billing system. The lawsuits occurred after ratepayers were overcharged by at least $67.5 million starting in 2013 following the implementation of a new billing system. Documents uncovered in one of the cases led to accusations that an attorney hired by the city may have represented both sides in a class-action lawsuit.

Tucker retired from LADWP a month before the FBI’s raid.

Katherman said the allegations at LADWP were “way above Mr. Tucker’s pay grade.” He accused DeWitt and Tucker of bringing up the raids to mislead the public.

Neither WRD nor Carson were raided during his time in office, Robles said. However, Robles was the subject of a lawsuit from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office because of his positions at both agencies. The district attorney won the suit in 2018 and forced Robles to resign from the water district in order to keep his council seat in Carson. A judge determined the two positions were incompatible because of overlapping responsibilities.

Thursday’s vote, regardless of the outcome, will resolve an allegation from the district’s union and a congresswoman that the board violated the Brown Act during the previous vote to hire Robles Dec. 3. The staff report at the time suggested the board would promote Assistant General Manager Rob Beste to the top position, but DeWitt pushed for a vote on Robles instead.

Kelly Aviles, an attorney who specializes in open government law, said the district did not appear to violate the Brown Act because the agenda item sufficiently notified the public of the board’s intention to hire a general manager. The board isn’t required to follow the specific recommendations in the staff report, she said.

Even if there was a violation, she said, the remedy is to simply vote again on the matter.

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