The Water Replenishment District of Southern California’s board of directors moved Thursday to hire a former board member forced out of office by the district attorney as its new general manager, despite concerns about his lack of qualifications and the rushed hiring process.
Board members voted 3-2 to select former Carson Mayor Albert Robles as the new general manager, then went into closed session to discuss it further. They then continued the meeting until the next day, though they had finished their agenda, and left those in attendance, including some other board members, unsure about what exactly that meant.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that the board’s agenda didn’t list Robles as a candidate for the position. He originally was mentioned in a staff report as the board president’s choice for assistant general manager instead, a move criticized as a violation of the district’s administrative code, which limits the board’s hiring to the general manager position.
And if that’s not complicated enough, the current general manager, Robb Whitaker, announced he would not be retiring until his contract ended in December 2021, backing down from a plan to exit in March.
WRD's primary treatment plant is in Long Beach, and it is charged with maintaining the area's sea water barrier, keeping ground water from contamination. It also provides recycled water to Long Beach.
Counsel warned against hiring
In response, the district’s counsel warned that hiring a new general manager while Whitaker was still under contract would be tantamount to firing him without cause and would trigger the need to pay out a year’s salary and benefits as severance.
Yet, the board moved forward anyway and, by the end of the meeting, it appeared WRD will have two general managers starting on Jan. 1. Board President Vera Robles DeWitt, a former Carson council member who stressed she had no relationship to Robles, directed staff to “work out the details.”
Board members had never formally accepted Whitaker’s retirement prior to his decision to rescind it, and it’s unclear if they have any grounds to force him to retire in March as he had originally planned.
Whitaker, who has worked in water resources for 35 years, received a total compensation of more than $480,000 in 2019, according to the state controller’s public pay database. Under the terms of the vote, Robles would receive the same salary and benefits.
Robles, a licensed attorney, served on the board for more than two decades. In 2018, Robles was removed from the water board when a judge agreed with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office that Robles’ positions on the Carson City Council and the water board were “incompatible.”
Robles and DeWitt, who was appointed to replace him in 2018, did not return requests for comment.
‘Made absolutely no sense’
The head-scratcher of a meeting left those in attendance stunned.
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Greg Osti, the president of the WRD chapter of ASFCME Local 1902. “It made absolutely no sense.”
Osti, along with the cities serviced by WRD, questioned the rushed nature of the hiring. Some speakers during public comment accused the district of corruption for even considering Robles. At the meeting, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Signal Hill, Lakewood, Whittier, Downey and Santa Fe Springs opposed the hiring.
The board had originally planned to conduct a nationwide search for Whitaker’s replacement and then scrapped the idea in mid-November. Up until about five minutes before they voted, the staff report and the discussions revolved around promoting Assistant General Manager Rob Beste to fill Whitaker’s role, contingent on the hiring of Robles as Beste’s replacement.
“Nobody had said anything about it, it just came out of the blue,” Osti said. “Albert lost his run for the mayor of Carson and all of sudden there’s an emergency about getting him a job.”
Robles decisively lost the Nov. 3 election for Carson mayor to Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes.
Member cities may challenge
Osti said the union doesn’t have a stance on Robles’ qualifications, but its members wanted the district to follow a transparent hiring process where the best candidate got the job. He expects the district’s member cities — the purveyors — will challenge the decision if it goes forward.
“Every one of our largest purveyors came out in writing against this,” Osti said. “WRD has worked really hard over the last 10 to 15 years to repair a severely damaged reputation and, just when everything seemed hunky-dory, this happens and it’s just gone in a day. It’s very disheartening.”
Kyle Cason, Whittier’s director of public works, said there is a lot of confusion among the purveyors about the board’s sudden shift in direction and about what it means for Whitaker, the current well-respected and highly qualified general manager. Whitaker built up trust among the purveyors and helped rebuild WRD, Cason said.
Now, if he is forced out to make room for Robles, it could cost nearly half a million dollars to pay his severance.
“We’re all a little bit confused about what actually happened,” Cason said. “We’re not here to say who is and isn’t qualified for the position, but we are a little bit concerned about hiring a former board member in any position. That has a tendency to undermine morale and trust.”
Cason said Whittier is waiting to see how Friday’s meeting plays out before determining its next steps.
U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragan, who urged the board to have a transparent and thorough process for hiring the next general manager, said she was shocked by the sudden decision. She accused the board of violating the Brown Act, California’s open government law, because nothing on the agenda indicated Robles was being considered for the role of general manager.
“I was on the call, I heard what transpired,” she said. “What I heard was the attorney for WRD advising the board that they could not move forward with this motion, that it was illegal. And yet, they said, who cares, we’re going to do what we want and went ahead with it anyway.”
Barragan, like others who spoke, learned about Robles’ potential hiring for the second-in-command position roughly a day earlier.
In interviews, John Allen and Robert Katherman, the two board members who opposed Robles’ hiring, said the meeting was continued because there was a need for clarification on the board’s vote to hire Robles.
Though he did not mention him by name, Allen said he had concerns about the decision-making capabilities of one elderly colleague. Director Willard Murray Jr., a former state assemblyman, is the oldest member of the board at 89. During the meeting, he asked DeWitt to repeat her motion to hire Robles as general manager three times before voting in support.
Allen said he is concerned his colleague is “no longer sure what he is voting for.”
Murray and director Sergio Calderon, who both supported the hiring, could not be reached for comment.
Is Robles qualified?
Allen said Robles lacks the qualifications for either role. Robles is a “smart guy,” but doesn’t have the experience or education, he said. Robles contacted Allen to ask him to support his hiring as assistant general manager. Robles reportedly told the board member he would defer to consultants if technical questions came up that he could not answer, according to Allen.
“I don’t why we’d pay him around $200,000 to a do a job that he is not interested in and not capable of doing,” Allen said.
Both Allen and Katherman said they would not oppose Robles’ hiring as general manager if he came out on top of a nationwide search for candidates.
“If it happened to be Albert Robles, I’d vote for him,” Allen said. “But I have some suspicion it would be someone with some technical and managerial experience.”
Katherman said he believes the meeting will clarify whether Robles will become the general manager or the assistant general manager. Robles does not have the qualifications for the assistant role, which is very technical in nature and has typically been filled by someone with an extensive engineering or construction management background, Katherman said.
The former mayor may actually be suited for the general manager role because of his background in public policy and with the district itself, Katherman said, but the district needs to go through a search process.
Whitaker wasn’t planning to retire until March and now says he’d stay on until December, meaning there was no reason to take an action now, Katherman said.
“The process was badly handled,” he said.