Battle over Southern California water czar is clash between old vision and new, observers say – Daily News

The most important thing to understand: If you’re reading this, you live in a desert. And you can live in this desert because politicians, scientists and engineers have moved mountains, almost literally, to bring you life-giving water.

The latest brawl in Water World plays out on this backdrop, and what comes out of your tap may well depend on the result. Will it come from recycled waste water? Desalination plants? A giant tunnel or two under the Delta? The answers will, in large part, depend on who’s chosen to lead the gargantuan Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 19 million people from Ventura County to the Mexican border.

Adel Hagekhalil (Courtesy city of Los Angeles)

In a close vote some hope to undo, Met’s board of directors chose Adel Hagekhalil to replace the retiring Jeff Kightlinger as general manager of the nation’s largest water agency. Hagekhalil, a civil engineer, is praised as “a true leader and a visionary in the water industry” with 32 years of public service in water, environmental and infrastructure management. He was an executive with Los Angeles’ sanitation department and now runs the city’s street services department.

Met’s board is slated to approve Hagekhalil’s employment contract — including a $400,000 annual salary and $700 monthly car allowance — on Tuesday, June 8.

A few critics — most vocally from Orange County —  want to stop that. Hagekhalil lacks vital experience in the drinking water world, they say, and point to harassment lawsuits filed against agencies he helmed, one of which names him as a defendant, as evidence he’s the wrong guy at the wrong time.

Instead, they support “water witch” Pat Mulroy, a legendary force in Water World, whose deft management and iron hand delivered enough wet stuff to fuel the explosive growth of Sin City and environs when she headed the Las Vegas Valley Water District, then the Southern Nevada Water Authority, for 25 years.

In the minds of many, Hagekhalil represents a future of water recycling, capture and conservation at home, while Mulroy represents a past of enormous infrastructure projects piping in fresh water from afar.

“(Y)ou are standing at a crossroads in water resource history,” wrote Steve Kasower, CEO of the Digital Transportation Corp., to the Met’s unwieldy 38-member board. “Your decision on who will take the General Manager leadership position … can either continue to follow the belief that we are going to be best served by traditional water resources knowledge, or can we shift our vision to a distinctly 21st Century perspective and think outside the imported water ‘box.’ “

District culture

Hagekhalil — the “outside the box” candidate — got 16 votes, including those of the mega-members, for a weighted victory, winning, 50.4% of the vote, according to district records. Voting for him were Santa Monica, Central Basin Municipal Water District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency, Long Beach, Fullerton, Glendale, Los Angeles, San Fernando, Santa Ana and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Pat Mulroy speaking on May 14, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for Wynn Las Vegas)

Mulroy — the traditional candidate — got more votes than Hagekhalil, at 18, but they were from smaller agencies, garnering 46.7% of the weighted vote. Voting for her were Anaheim, Pasadena, Torrance, Compton, San Marino, the Municipal Water District of Orange County, Foothill MWD, Calleguas MWD, Three Valleys MWD, Upper San Gabriel Valley MWD, Western MWD, West Basin MWD, Central Basin MWD and Eastern Municipal Water District.

But this changing of the guard comes at a complicated time in Met’s evolution. The district has been hit with serious allegations of a hostile and discriminatory work environment, chronicled by the Los Angeles Times, and is looking for a clean, fresh start.

Hagekhalil’s critics say he’s not that fresh start. Several lawsuits charging harassment, failure to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation have been filed against the Los Angeles departments Hagekhalil led over the past decade. Though none accuse him personally of any such behavior, the suits give some pause.

“We have a candidate who’s in the middle of the very same kind of culture issues, harassment issues. I think we need to look at it,” said Linda Ackerman, who represents Anaheim on the Met board. “We owe it to every employee to ensure a strong and healthy culture.”

This culture question is being taken so seriously that an outside firm is working on a report probing the extent of harassment and other issues at Met. That report is due later this month, and it would behoove the board to wait until it’s done to finalize the general manager appointment, said Larry Dick, who represents the Municipal Water District of Orange County on Met’s board.

“They’re both experienced, good candidates, good administrators,” Dick said. “One has a great deal of experience in delivering water. The other has a great deal of experience in treating wastewater. One can talk with great authority about accessing the Colorado River water and has actually worked on pacts doing that. The other has done a very effective job, I’m told, of treating water, and has been moved into the streets department.

“This is the largest drinking water agency in the United States,” he said. “You would think having some potable water experience would have great value.”

Praise for Hagekhalil

At least 60 letters praising Hagekhalil have poured into the Met board in advance of the vote to finalize his contract. They come from environmental groups, colleagues in the city of Los Angeles, employee unions and water world officials from around the state and beyond, praising him as “a transformational leader” with a well-deserved reputation for building partnerships with all stakeholders, even those who disagree with him.

He is, actually, the right person at the right time to wrestle with Met’s culture, many said.

“With the serious allegations of a hostile and discriminatory work environment at MWD that have recently come to light, it is imperative to bring aboard a leader that is willing to tackle these issues head-on,” said a letter from the Surfrider Foundation South Bay Chapter, Save the Colorado, Residents for Responsible Desalination and other groups. Hagekhalil is that leader, they said.

Mulroy, meanwhile, was on the board of Wynn Resorts when it was rocked by sexual harassment allegations — something increasingly common as the past catches up with the business world in the #MeToo era, many said.

Fred Jung, who represents Fullerton on the Met board, read the lawsuits and didn’t find that Hagekhalil was personally culpable for any of the allegations — and neither did the recruiting firm hired to vet him.

“He’s remarkably qualified. His resume really speaks for itself. The changes he has made culturally and systemically in the agencies he’s been involved with will be critical for this water agency, the largest in the country, moving forward,” Jung said. “It’s egregious overreach to defy the will of the majority of the board.”

Existential threat?

Decreasing SoCal’s dependence on imported water could weaken the mighty alliances that have imported water for the past century and allowed the region to thrive, critics say. It might also spell the extinction of some of those water agencies themselves.

The Municipal Water District of Orange County is essentially a middle-man, buying imported water from Met and reselling it to Orange County cities and special districts. Its own existence has been challenged — why, exactly, is a middle-man necessary? — and if imported water becomes less and less important, it might have more trouble justifying its existence.

Muni filed a public records request with the city of Los Angeles on May 28, seeking union grievances, complaints, lawsuits and settlements involving the two departments where Hagekhalil worked. That doesn’t sit well with the Orange County Water District, the agency that manages O.C.’s vast groundwater basin and shares offices with Muni.

“In the 10 years I have know Adel I have found him to be a consensus builder and a person who would set goals and then achieve them,” said OCWD General Manager Mike Markus, who served as a reference for Hagekhalil. “I don’t understand why there is so much controversy regarding the selection.”

Ackerman, the critic from Anaheim, said that Met’s new GM needs a background in all aspects of surface water, the reliability of supply and its resilience.

“Met is facing several extremely important decisions that will affect the future of water supply for 19 million people. This requires a GM who can provide a seamless transition, someone with the complete understanding of the complex issues in front of us. This is not the time for someone to face a learning curve,” she said.

Hagekhalil’s supporters said there won’t be one. Imported water will always be critically important to Southern California, Kasower said in his letter, but the future belongs to “extreme wastewater recycling” and desalination.

“Mr. Hagekhalil sees the water world through the 21st century lens. He understands the great value that sustainable water supplies hold for Southern Californians. His competitor is a brilliant water resource manager whose approach is based on the tradition of reliance on imported supplies, political acrimony, and strong willed adherence to traditions. We cannot afford to stand still — or worse, to move in reverse.”


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