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’s board has postponed its next meeting to Tuesday, Dec. 8, when it is expected to clarify a controversial vote to hire former Carson Mayor Albert Robles as general manager.

The board had initially continued its Thursday meeting to the next day, but board President Vera Robles DeWitt changed the date just four hours before the Friday meeting was slated to begin.

“I had originally scheduled a meeting for today but upon reflection figured everybody needed to take a deep breath and count to 10,” she said in a Friday morning email to staff and other board members.

DeWitt’s email suggested that anyone who wanted to present their views on Robles’ hiring should call her ahead of the meeting.

“Now may I ask that the interested folks not be running to the newspapers, elected officials, pumpers, etc., to air your grievances and possibly damage WRD any further,” she wrote. “Out of respect for WRD, better to discuss it first in house.”

WRD's primary treatment plant is in Long Beach, and it is charged with maintaining the area's sea water barrier, protecting ground water from contamination. It also provides recycled water to Long Beach.

U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragan accused the board of violating the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, on Thursday by voting to hire Robles as general manager when it was not on the agenda. The original agenda item contemplated promoting the assistant general manager, Ron Beste, to the top spot, contingent on the hiring of Robles as Beste’s replacement.

Robles, an attorney, previously served as a WRD board member for more than two decades. He was removed when a judge ruled that he could not serve on the water board and also on the Carson City Council. He lost his re-election to mayor in Carson in November.

Thursday’s meeting took an unexpected turn when it was revealed Robb Whitaker, the current general manager, no longer planned to retire in March 2021. Because Whitaker’s contract doesn’t end until December 2021, the district’s counsel warned the board that hiring a new general manager would effectively terminate Whitaker’s contract early and could force the district to pay out nearly half a million dollars in severance.

Speakers at the meeting, largely representing the cities served by the groundwater agency, opposed the hiring of Robles and urged the board to instead conduct a nationwide search for Whitaker’s eventual replacement.

Board members nevertheless moved forward against the warnings of their counsel and, at the last minute, DeWitt asked for a vote to hire Robles to take the top spot instead. It passed 3-2, but then following a closed session discussion, the board moved to reconvene the next day with the supposed goal of clarifying what their vote had meant.

If the board updates its agenda and votes again on Tuesday, it could remedy any potential Brown Act violation from the earlier meeting. However, DeWitt’s request for board members to reach out to her ahead of the meeting could open a whole new can of worms. It is also a violation of the Brown Act to conduct what is called a “serial meeting,” where a majority of board members, who are generally barred from meeting privately all at once, instead form a consensus by speaking to one person separately.

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