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. Afterward, they continued the meeting until the next day, though they had finished the agenda, and then on Friday, postponed the continued meeting to Tuesday, Dec. 8. The series of events left those in attendance, including some other board members, unsure about what exactly had transpired.
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.
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.”
U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, 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.”
Barragán, 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.