I want to thank you for your concern and input regarding recent events at the Water Replenishment District (WRD or District). I believe I can say without fear of contradiction that WRD has a reputation of transparency and of welcoming constructive feedback – and even criticism – from the public and from our fellow public servants.
We have recently received a number of letters related to the retirement of our General Manager Robb Whitaker, which he originally proposed for the end of this year 2020. The general tenor of the comments received (1) criticized our process to replace him (including questioning whether he was actually retiring), (2) claimed we lacked transparency, (3) raised fears that we would hire someone unqualified, and (4) expressed concern we would tarnish WRD’s reputation in the process. The action of the WRD Board of Directors needs to be put in context and to that end I want to share with you some facts.
WRD has had a terrific run in recent years. Not the least of our successes was construction of the landmark, state-of-the-art water recycling plant in Pico Rivera. It was a red-letter day when this facility went operational and freed the District from our dependence on imported water. But other great days for this District lie ahead. We are now embarking on a new long-term program to clean up the tens of billions of gallons of brackish water along the coast and recycle it for domestic use. That alone will be a challenging project that, once completed, will strengthen the sustainability of our region’s water resources. It is indisputable that WRD is the pioneer when it comes to recycling wastewater for domestic use, and WRD plans to mobilize its experience and leadership to collaborate with a half-dozen water agencies in coming years to develop a regional strategic water plan that will prepare the greater Los Angeles area for the water resource challenges of the future.
As we enter this exciting new period, WRD needs leadership that can meet the moment. To do this, WRD’s Board of Directors is determined to do a soul-searching review of all its practices, its personnel, its organizational structure and physical facilities to determine what’s working and what’s not working, what should be overhauled, what tweaked (and even what should be left intact) so we can achieve our goals and take advantage of opportunities to better serve the 42 cities and 4 million+ residents in our service area.
As President and one of the newer Board members, I can see that there is a need for a close review of some of our policies and practices. For example, we know that some of the public agencies in the area have had concerns with WRD’s excessive management salaries and costs. When I found out the current General Manager has a salary of $546,887, and has not one but two Assistant General Managers who each make $363,438 (our General Manager makes more money than the General Manager of Metropolitan Water District that has a 1.8 billion budget and over 1,800 employees). In fact the compensation costs of the top eleven managers at WRD totals $3.2M. And these 11 managers oversee a staff of only 34 employees. I believe we need fresh eyes to look into this and other issues and I think the WRD Board agrees. I should think that all our shared constituencies should want the same.
Turning back to the issue of Mr. Whitaker’s retirement, this was submitted to the WRD Board of Directors in September of this year. At the time, we asked him to stay longer, but he did not commit. Later, Mr. Whitaker gave written notice of his retirement to HR, stakeholders and the community at large, including CalPERS, that his retirement would be effective March 2021. WRD accepted the fact of his retirement and started a recruitment process by retaining a recruitment firm from a field of several who Mr. Whitaker assisted in vetting and selecting. The WRD Board hired the recruitment firm of Roberts Consulting on November 5. Moreover, as written by Mr. Whitaker in the staff report this action contemplated the implementation of a succession and transition plan that would require a 6 month period, where Mr. Whitaker would assist the successor in becoming familiar with WRD procedures and the constituencies served.
However, Mr. Whitaker at the Board meeting of December 3 surprised us by announcing an hour before the meeting that he wanted to change his mind and unilaterally withdraw his retirement indefinitely. While I respect the job Mr. Whitaker has done over his long tenure, I do not believe he has the “new eyes” to oversee the top-down review of WRD which I and some of my colleagues feel is necessary. But I cannot go into detail about this as it is a personnel matter. However, I believe that a public employee is not entitled to unilaterally withdraw a retirement when the appointing power has acted in reliance on that retirement, which we did in starting the recruitment process. During our last meeting I had a debate with our General Counsel on this and he seems to be interested in making the case we are “terminating” Mr. Whitaker’s contract a year early rather than following common sense and legal precedent that Mr. Whitaker retired of his own free will and as we have moved forward in reliance, he can’t change his mind. Maybe, Mr. Whitaker would wish to contest this legal point, but I’d be disappointed if he were to end his tenure with WRD on this sour note. The true cause of these machinations is that the “Boys” are upset that their “behind the scenes” succession plot of promoting who they want has been upstaged, plain and simple.
Another issue raised has been whether at this point the recruitment process should be terminated. It need not be terminated but it should be conducted by someone who shares our vision of the future. I am concerned why Mr. Whitaker changed his mind about his retirement, did he have some personal preference as his successor? So, I think the process should be restarted to ensure it is an open and transparent. It is in this light that I propose that former Board Member Albert Robles should become the interim General Manager to conduct a recruitment without him being an applicant.
Let me expand on Mr. Robles’ qualifications with which many do not seem to be familiar with. In Albert, we have the opportunity to tap into his 25 years of working knowledge of the District. Albert has been an invaluable champion of water recycling for decades. It is no accident that WRD’s Pico Rivera facility was named the Albert Robles Center for Water Recycling and Environmental Learning. That naming decision was a tribute to Albert’s tenacity and his vision which I respectfully remind you that many naysayers opposed. If WRD had followed the naysayer’s objections back then WRD would not be celebrating its self-sustainability with respect to our water needs today. The one constant champion was Albert Robles.
Albert’s academic credentials are impressive as well. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from USC (where he was a USC merit scholarship recipient) and a law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law (where he graduated with honors).
In a District in which over 70 percent of the population consists of people of color, we also sorely need a senior management team that does a better job of reflecting that diversity. Currently there are 11 management positions with only two Asians, two Latinos and no African Americans. A majority of the Board of Directors also believe the District would be best served by a senior management team not top-heavy with engineers. The current General Manager of Metropolitan Water District is not a registered engineer, does not have an engineering degree and like Mr. Robles has a law degree but unlike Mr. Robles does not have a Masters’ Degree in Public Administration. As another example, the General Manager of West Basin Municipal Water District is not a registered engineer, does not have an engineering degree but does have a high school diploma. In fact Mr. Whitaker himself suggested Mr. Robles would make a great General Manager for Central Basin Municipal Water District.
Moreover, as Mayor of Carson, Mr. Robles has consistently provided a high level of leadership bringing in extremely professional managers who have upgraded staff and ended previously questionable practices. To successfully undertake these forthcoming challenges and tasks will require leadership that is bold, professional and experienced. A majority of the Board of Directors at the December 3 meeting decided former Board member Albert Robles should be part of our senior management team during this transitional period.
I understand why there might be some confusion about what occurred at the December 3rd meeting. And some have leveled ill-informed and/or baseless criticisms of the Board majority at that session. For example it was suggested there might be a waste of WRD resources in how we were pursuing the recruitment process. But previously we publicly disclosed that we contemplated an overlap in Mr. Whitaker’s tenure with whomever the new GM might be, but with Mr. Robles’ experience, there is a savings as a protracted overlap is not needed and we can let Mr. Whitaker proceed timely with his retirement. There have been questions raised about the Brown Act, but a cursory review of the agenda item shows that it specifically provided for providing direction on the hiring of “a new WRD General Manager and contingent actions.” This is precisely what the Brown Act requires and is exactly what we did. Moreover, for full transparency the specific contract terms will be on a future agenda.
During my time in Carson, both as a Councilmember and community organizer, I was known as a reformer, champion of transparency, and advocate for efficiency. Now I am President of WRD and have a duty to make sure our organization is lean, transparent and responsive to the public. I recommended Mr. Robles because I believe no one has accomplished more or cares more for this organization. I would not have proposed him if I did not think he was capable of successfully undertaking a recruitment process and reforming an agency that has gotten a little bloated through the years.
Mr. Robles has agreed to serve as Special Interim General Manager to conduct the recruitment; to not be a candidate for the permanent position; to examine the organization at all levels; to look at ways to improve relations with the public, water providers and stakeholders; and to make a specific set of recommendations for reform.
It is time for a fresh set of eyes to review the District’s operations. I am not convinced that anyone familiar or unfamiliar with our organization could do a better job than Mr. Robles in conducting such a review. In fact, I think we would be lucky in our recruitment to find personnel who have an equal in-depth knowledge and familiarity of our local water resources needs, public policy skills, political acumen and media savvy.
In sum, the fear that Mr. Robles is not qualified is wrong, the fear that the process is not in accordance with law is wrong, the fear that there will not be an open recruitment is wrong, the fear that we will waste WRD resources is wrong. We believe at the end of this process we will have a strengthened organization ready for the coming decade of challenges.
You may not all agree with our judgment and I respect that but I hope by reading this letter you have a better understanding. Our process will be open. But in the end, we have to do what we feel is necessary to improve our organization. We are closest to it. Often change is resisted—but true agents of change have to carry on despite the slings and arrows. But we respect our critics.
I hope this addresses all the concerns, but I am happy to receive additional comments if you want to share them.
Vera Robles DeWitt