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Tue, Jul

The Strangely Timed Political Ambush Of MWD GM Adel Hagekhalil

LOS ANGELES

KORETZ POV - Following a June 11th Metropolitan Water District Board Meeting, another was quickly called for June 13th for the purpose of “Discipline/Dismissal/Release” of General Manager Adel Hagekhalil, apparently in response to a May 27th  letter from MWD Finance Officer Katano Kasaine to Board Chair Adan Ortega. Ortega appears to have sat on this letter for two weeks, then called for the action when General Manager Hagekhalil was in Singapore for a publicly announced trip to a water conference. The timing of Ortega’s action alone has the stink of politics more than anything truly substantive.

Following public comments by stakeholders, labor leaders, tribal leaders, environmentalists and colleagues all voicing their confidence in GM Hagekhalil, the Board met in closed session and – in his absence – placed him on extended administrative leave. A move that, without any due process nor testimony from the GM himself, is questionable, at best, and, at worst, when one is speaking about the most important water agency in the Western United States, a reckless attempt at a palace coup.

Having served on the MWD Board for several years, as well as on the LA City Council while Adel Hagekhalil was an extremely well-respected general manager, I may have a unique perspective on the matter.

When I first was appointed to the MWD Board, I quickly learned the lay of the land. New members were encouraged not to speak at a Board meeting for their first five years on the Board. The Board was dominated by the staff and the old guard, sometimes known as “Water Buffaloes,” who were not environmentally focused, but supported wealthy special interests: large landowners, big agriculture and oil companies. They were anything but change- and reform-minded and they were not, in my opinion, taking votes based on the best interests of all Southern Californians.

When I joined, MWD was being accused of many ethical problems, and yet the Board’s Water Buffaloes seemed intent on harassing and making things difficult for the woman who served as their ethics officer, and made a point of cutting her budget, leaving her with few resources to investigate Board members. It is not surprising that a general manager who has responsibly overseen the effort to reform an agency with long-running problems of sexual harassment and employee mistreatment has folks on the Board motivated to see him ushered out the door.

As a new member, I decided not to hold my tongue and spoke on several items at my first meeting at the building located, yes, in downtown LA’s Chinatown. I opposed a motion on our consent calendar to support a state bill I felt was harmful to the environment. It was intended as a kind of a protest vote and I didn’t expect to have others join me. Much to my surprise, my position received just over 50%, and we prevailed! It turned out that once a Board Member provided some [dreaded by the staff] leadership, we had the barest of majorities on many issues. Even after I left the Board, our tiny majority voting bloc remained, and, after a significant power struggle, the Water Buffaloes lost and Adel Hagekhalil was hired as the new reform-minded General Manager. The trail he has blazed, following his “We Are One” motto, has led to significant stakeholder engagement, an open door, and transparency as to his intended path toward a climate resilient future. These were all hallmarks sorely missing from the previous administration. 

Ms. Kasaine, who originated the complaint letter, is a staffer clearly loyal and philosophically in tune with the old guard. Her complaints seem to be mainly that she has management and policy disagreements with the GM and is frustrated with that, as well as his hiring of some very bright, hard-working and environmentally minded former LA City staffers as top advisors. Disagreement, frankly, doesn’t seem like much of a scandal, rather more of a fig leaf to cover an attempted firing to halt the progressive change in agency direction of the last few years.

The most questionable element in this situation is related to the State’s plan to spend (an always-shifting sum) $16-20 billion dollars on more infrastructure to move water from the Bay Area to Southern California. The Delta Conveyance Project will cause significant environmental harm and often will bring little water, as, during drought years when its water would be most needed, there often is not enough water to send.  Adel Hagekhalil was taking a realistic view of this boondoggle and pushing back against jumping down this costly and questionable rabbit hole. It should be noted that this project is one of the most fervently fought issues for the special-interest-driven Water Buffaloes. It should also be noted that Ms. Kasaine’s accusations come while she is the treasurer of the Delta Conveyance Design & Construction Authority, the organization that would be carving this costly infrastructure project through the Bay Delta. The very organization whose project General Manager Hagekhalil was opposing.

Can you say conflict of interest?

So, who leaked the accusations publicly in the first place? Many observers believe it is the individual who publicly blasted the leaker: Board Chair Adan Ortega himself. His timing of dismissing GM Hagekhalil while in a faraway country seems just as questionable and scammy as this convenient leak, about which he protested a little bit too much. Ortega’s own connections to the Delta Conveyance Project, and to those special interests who will benefit most from it, should be at least as vigorously investigated as the accusations leveled at GM Hagekhalil.

Having worked with Adel Hagekhalil for years in LA City government while I was a City Councilmember, I found him to be bright, hard-working, ethical, environmentally focused, and incredibly well-respected by those who worked closest with him, including my own staff. I can’t think of anyone to whom I would give a higher recommendation for such an important leadership position that will impact our collective climate resilient future. I would bet my life that there is no there there to these accusations. What seems like a set-up is likely a set-up. Even after all these decades, it’s still Chinatown, Jake.

Adel has been slowly dragging a 20th century institution into the 21st century, seriously facing down the challenges that the founders of the Southern California water system could not have foreseen, nor imagined. He deserves the chance to finish what he started and not get waylaid by political infighting. Our collective future could very well depend upon it.

(Paul Koretz is a former LA City Councilmember, CA State Assemblymember and West Hollywood Mayor and City Councilmember.)

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