California

Report on powerful water agency finds no widespread issues in handling employee complaints

A powerful Southern California water agency accused by some employees of sexual harassment and other workplace violations “generally provides a safe and respectful working environment” for people of color, women and LGBTQ+ workers, a report on the agency concludes.

The review of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California found no systemic problems in how the agency handles complaints of harassment, racism, retaliation and other alleged discrimination. But it found the agency had not properly responded to such complaints in the past and said some current equity policies are inconsistently applied.

The 67-page review was conducted by the Shaw Law Group, the Sacramento-based firm hired after several employees related personal experiences of alleged harassment at public meetings. The board of directors approved an independent review in November.

A subsequent investigation by The Times found a pattern of complaints among women working in trades positions and enrolled in the trades apprenticeship program, which mostly recruited men. Of the 18 women who worked in trades positions between 2003 and 2019, six filed formal equal employment opportunity complaints, according to district records.

Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s recently hired general manager, called the report “the beginning of the healing process.” He said he looked forward to discussing its findings and recommendations with board members, labor leaders and employees at the upcoming board meeting.

“I feel this is a good start,” Hagekhalil said.

The review highlighted several disturbing complaints, including a worker who talked openly about wanting to “shoot Black people in the head if they’re Democrats” as well as “illegals” at the Mexican border. A Black female employee told the law firm’s investigators that an older, white man said in a conversation that he’d never been around “Negroes” before.

The report said a manager told investigators he wanted “to see things return to the way things were” when managers could ask job candidates questions such as “Are you married?” and “Are you a Christian?” because he “wanted guys who would fit in.”

A white male employee complained to investigators that although other workers formed cultural associations, it would be seen as bad to form a district association exclusively for white people, the report said.

The report found some deficiencies in how the MWD handled investigations of equal employment opportunity complaints, including its reliance on external investigators to interpret district policies, a practice the Shaw Law Group said should end.

In the case of the employee who allegedly told a Black worker about wanting to shoot Black Democrats, an outside investigator substantiated “many of the allegations” but found they didn’t violate district policy.

Adan Ortega, one of the board members who first requested the review, said he was disappointed the report wasn’t more conclusive on accountability.

He noted the report failed to address whether the board should have been better informed about the case of Don Nash, a manager who oversaw the district’s sprawling aqueduct system. A Times story earlier this year revealed that Nash ran the camps like an abusive tyrant, until he was fired and died by suicide on district property.

Board members said they were never briefed about the suicide or the circumstances leading to it.

“I read the report several times, and it leaves me in a lurch,” Ortega said, adding that he thought a pending state audit approved by the state Legislature last month would be needed to “put some of the doubts to rest.”

Ellen Mackey, chairwoman of the district employee union’s women’s caucus, said many questions remain unanswered, and her first impression was that the report was “disappointingly superficial.”

Jennifer Shaw, president of the Shaw Law Group, said the firm “conducted an exhaustive review” and that some people would inevitably be disappointed. She said the firm was ready to provide additional information or investigate some issues further if asked. The board is scheduled to receive the report at a public meeting Tuesday.

“We were independent, we were neutral, and we did our very best in responding to the scope the board provided to us,” Shaw said.

Board Chairwoman Gloria Gray said she was satisfied that the report had accomplished its objectives and that the board would consider its recommendations. Although the report showed that the agency wasn’t exceptionally bad compared to other organizations, she said, MWD leaders should “expect excellence.”

The Shaw Law Group also conducted a series of surveys and interviews and found that, among women who were interviewed, 63% said the MWD was not a safe and respectful working environment for female employees.

However, the survey of employees found that 72% of those who participated overall said the district provided “a safe and respectful working environment for women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ employees.”

The law firm also made several recommendations, including having the equal employment opportunity office report directly to the board to help restore workers’ confidence that their complaints would be handled appropriately.




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