Nine U.S. congressional representatives have issued a public rebuke of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California over its lack of transparency in a move to hire former Carson Mayor Albert Robles as the district’s new general manager.
In a joint letter, the House members wrote they are “deeply troubled” by the board of directors’ sudden 3-2 vote to hire Robles, who served on the board for 25 years, as general manager during a meeting where Robles originally was being considered for a lesser, though equally controversial, role.
The hiring may have violated the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, because Robles was not identified on the agenda as a candidate for the top spot, according to the letter. The board’s conduct “raises serious issues and may be best investigated” by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, the letter states.
“We would encourage the board to reconsider how it conducts business, whether it is to undergo a transparent search process for a new general manager, or noticing items in compliance with the Brown Act so that the public trust is maintained and not abused,” they wrote.
The letter is signed by Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragan, Grace Napolitano, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Linda Sanchez, Maxine Waters, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Judy Chu and Gil Cisneros. Their letter questions Robles’ qualifications and warns that the board’s action could lead to a substantial waste of taxpayer money.
“The complexity of groundwater projects and importance of WRD to more than four million people requires an experienced manager in the field to run the agency,” they stated. “It should not be a political landing spot.”
Robles, who was forced to resign from the WRD board in 2018, lost re-election in Carson on Nov. 3.
Within two weeks, the idea of hiring Robles at the water district began to circulate. At their Dec. 3 meeting, board members considered a memorandum from President Vera Robles DeWitt recommending that Assistant General Manager Rob Beste be promoted to general manager “subject to the hiring of Albert Robles for the vacated assistant general manager” within 48 hours. The district’s administrative code allows the board to hire a general manager, but it cannot directly choose his subordinates.
Nearly every speaker at the meeting, largely representing the cities serviced by WRD, urged the board to return to its original plan to conduct a nationwide search for a new general manager. At the same time, the current general manager, Robb Whitaker, announced he no longer plans to retire in March 2021 and would instead stay until his contract ended next December. The board’s attorney warned against voting to replace Whitaker in light of his decision, as hiring another general manager would effectively terminate Whitaker’s contract early and trigger the need to pay out nearly $500,000 in severance.
At the last minute, DeWitt pushed the board to a vote on hiring Robles as general manager instead, disregarding her own recommendation, and gave direction to staff to “work out” the logistics of effectively having two general managers starting on Jan. 1.
The sudden shift generated significant confusion, including among board members, about what exactly the vote meant. The board continued its meeting until Dec. 4 and was expected to clarify the hiring then, but that meeting was canceled and rescheduled to Dec. 8, before it was ultimately canceled again.
“Knowing everyone wants an open and transparent discussion of the matters before WRD, we will forgo the special meeting and stay with the regularly scheduled board of directors meeting on Thursday, Dec. 17 at 11 a.m.,” DeWitt wrote in an email Monday morning. “I am available if staff or other stakeholders want to provide comments or suggestions. This does not apply to board so that we DON’T VIOLATE THE BROWN ACT.”