Tue, Apr

Metropolitan Water District of SoCal - Leadership’s Fallen and It Can’t Get Up

THE EASTSIDER - I will confess that after three articles earlier last year on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and its General Manager since 2021, Mr. Adel Hagekhalil, I figured I was ready to move on.  After all, how much more can one say about a formerly obscure (albeit critically important) water agency that folks routinely get confused with the Los Angeles City Department of Water & Power?

Fortunately for my journalistic ambitions, MWD is the gift that keeps on giving…or at least the gift that keeps me busy. 

In my last article back on April 27, 2023, I mentioned a trove of documents that was obtained, which substantiated in painstaking detail, how Adel and his executive team had managed to violate almost every personnel rule and procedure imaginable.  Everything from Adel’s refusal to hold employees accountable who engaged in racism and harassment; to quashing investigations of complaints against Adel; to jobs being handed out like Christmas candy to Adel’s chosen friends.

Since that last article here on the pages of CityWatchLA, I have been contacted by more sources within MWD, current and former employees alike, all with stories to share about the monkey business that is still ongoing.  Their stories paint a damning portrait of an important local government agency being led horribly astray by Adel, ever since he rather controversially ascended to MWD’s top job some two and a half years ago.

But Let’s Start With Some Good News…Labor Peace (though at what cost?)

On November 14, 2023, MWD’s Board of Directors approved a new two-year contract with AFSCME, Local 1902, which is the agency’s largest labor union, representing the vast majority of its 1,800 employees.  The deal will keep AFSCME employees under contract through 2026.

AFSCME’s current contract already called for pay raises of 3% in 2022, 2023 and 2024.  This new deal provides 4% raises in both 2025 and 2026.

It also tacks on an additional 5.5% to the Union’s 2023 pay raise, for a sweet 8.5% just in 2023 alone.  And it provides a $3,500 cash payment to several hundred employees whose jobs did not permit them to work from home during the COVID pandemic, but required them to be at a physical work site (kind of hard to turn a wrench from a Zoom call at home, after all).

All told, the deal is anticipated to cost over of $44 million by 2026.

So What’s Wrong With Workers Getting a Good Deal?

Nothing.  As a former labor guy who cheered recent deals by the nation’s autoworkers, and Hollywood writers, I say congratulations AFSCME.

But the lucrative labor agreement should give pause to both taxpayers and water rate payers alike.  First off, readers should know that MWD’s workforce has long had some of the most highly paid public employees in the State, with an average annual salary of around $120,000 (many managers can expect to fetch more than twice that).  That’s not counting benefits like 100% paid medical coverage, matching contributions to a 401k plan, plus a good old-fashioned pension.

Again, I’m an old union guy, so I’m always happy when rank and file workers do well.  But while it’s important for any public employer to pay competitive wages, sources say that MWD salaries have for years been far and away above what most any other municipality can afford to pay.  Now that gap is even bigger.

But perhaps most concerning is that MWD’s largesse is beginning to catch up with it.  According to sources, frontline managers and supervisors are being told they cannot get any new positions to perform the critical work of the agency.  Tasks like treating and delivering high quality drinking water to the residents of Southern California.  In fact, at least some employees have expressed that while they love the new big pay raises, some of that money might have been better spent ensuring that the workforce is fully staffed, and better able to perform its core mission.

Still others are wondering where the money is going to come from, period.  They note that MWD seems further adrift than ever from the sound fiscal management that it was long known for under the stewardship of previous General Managers.

So, Then Why the Sweet Union Deal?

Many at MWD say that at a minimum, Adel is deeply indebted to the AFSCME union for his job.  After all, sources familiar with the 2021 General Manager hiring process (a cringe worthy affair that I detailed in my second MWD article last April 12th), describe how Adel pretty much ranked at the bottom of potential candidates to succeed outgoing GM Jeff Kightlinger.

Yet through various political machinations, spearheaded by AFSCME as well as former LA Mayor Garcetti’s appointees to the MWD Board, Adel somehow leap-frogged over a slew of much more highly qualified, well-established leaders in the water industry, to land MWD’s top job.  To sum it up, Adel owed AFSCME.  And AFSCME just collected.

But according to some, it goes deeper than that.  Sources point to an ongoing string of personnel controversies surrounding Adel and suggest that the GM is attempting to buy off a critical and skeptical workforce, at a time when he is under increasing scrutiny.

For instance, there is the well-documented case of an employee who over two years ago was the victim of blatant racism and discrimination.  I described this employee’s plight in my April 27th column.  Adel steadfastly refused to take any action to protect this employee, and when the employee filed a formal complaint, Adel and his team promptly did everything they could to sweep it under the carpet.

Now, Adel finds himself in the crosshairs of that employee’s lawsuit and it’s set for trial soon.  In fact, Adel and staff recently had to go hat in hand to the MWD Board, to get authorization for an additional $350,000, not to exceed a total of $750,000, to pay the outside law firm of Seyfarth Shaw to defend MWD and Adel in what has been described as needless, wholly avoidable litigation.

Then, there is Adel’s highly controversial hiring of his crony Mohsen Mortada, to be his new “Chief of Staff.”  Remember earlier we said that managers aren’t being allowed new positions to perform critical work?  Well, the moratorium evidently doesn’t apply to Adel’s own office.

“Chief of Staff” Mohsen’s pay will top out at just over $423,000 a year, easily making him one of the agency’s highest paid employees, just behind Adel.  CityWatchLA readers will be “shocked” to learn that Mohsen is reportedly close friends with Adel, and had previously been hired by Adel as, what else, a consultant.  Somewhere the ghost of Boss Tweed must be smiling…

The hiring so rankled the MWD workforce, that Adel was forced to address the issue at an all-hands Managers meeting late last year.  According to those in the room, Adel acknowledged that the money spent hiring Mohsen could have been used to hire additional frontline workers, but…  Well, except that there was no “but.”  There was no explanation given.  Adel is simply more concerned with building out his bloated entourage, than he is with making sure his managers have enough staff to keep the water flowing.

One source summed up the whole situation when they said, “Adel is banking that if you’re an employee and you’re upset with him now, thirteen and a half percent in raises may just shut you up.”

Why I Care, And You Should Too

Folks, I’ve been around local government a long time, and I know the Metropolitan Water District well.  I’ve walked its halls, met with its staff, and understand how important an agency it is.  I know that without the MWD, and the water it delivers to LA, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego Counties, this grand experiment of life in Southern California doesn’t exactly work. 

Unfortunately, it would not appear as if the situation up in the C-Suite has improved since last I covered MWD some eight months ago.  Cronyism is rampant, priorities are out of whack, accountability is non-existent, and now, sources say that some of MWD’s best, most experienced people are heading for the exits.

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.)