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The San Diego County Water Authority is reviewing allegations that its longtime general manager harassed a member of the agency’s board of directors.
Maureen Stapleton, who has led the Water Authority for over two decades, accused a male board member of having an affair with a woman who works for the Metropolitan Water District, an agency that has long had tensions with the local water authority. The incident took place around other people during a water industry event. There is no evidence such an affair took place.
The board member, Tom Kennedy of the Rainbow Municipal Water District, wrote a letter calling for an investigation of Stapleton’s conduct. In the letter, Kennedy said Stapleton was “extremely intoxicated” and needed help walking.
The incident suggests that, at least on the Water Authority side, a long-standing rivalry between two water agencies has devolved into personal attacks that have little or nothing to do with ensuring San Diego has plenty of affordable water.
The allegations could now affect Stapleton’s future with the agency, which she helped transform since becoming general manager in 1996. The incident is likely to be a topic of discussion during an already scheduled performance review next week.
Stapleton ran into Kennedy at a reception during a water industry conference in Sacramento last week. Such conferences often feature daytime panel discussions about water followed by evening receptions.
Allegations about what happened that evening have already prompted the Water Authority to begin an internal review of the incident, but the agency has been trying to keep a lid on details about the encounter.
On Thursday, the chairman of the Metropolitan board, Randy Record, sent a letter to the Water Authority’s board detailing the incident from his agency’s perspective. On Friday, Metropolitan also released to VOSD a written account of the incident by Kennedy, which Kennedy sent first to the Water Authority and then to Metropolitan.
According to Kennedy’s account, Stapleton approached him at a reception hosted by a law firm and suggested he was having an affair with a Metropolitan staffer.
“I am not!” Kennedy wrote.
The staffer is Meena Westford, who represents Metropolitan’s interests in San Diego. Recently, some leaders at the Water Authority have been trying to get Westford reassigned, so that she could no longer work in San Diego.
According to Kennedy’s account, Stapleton then took out her phone to pull up a salacious website. The site allows people to anonymously post unconfirmed allegations of adultery.
A post on the website makes vague allegations about Westford. The post claims Westford “sleeps with married men.”
“Maureen used her cell phone to show me inappropriate and degrading information about this MWD employee on an app or a website on her phone,” Kennedy wrote, referring to Metropolitan, which is known as MWD. “During the course of her scrolling search for the MWD employee, she purposefully or inadvertently caused me to see many images of women in various stages of undress.”
Kennedy wrote that he’s not having any affair.
“Further, the fact that anyone is making such allegations is very upsetting to my wife, Sheri, to whom I have been happily married for 23 years,” Kennedy wrote. “I, of course, told my wife about these false allegations.”
Then, according to Kennedy, Stapleton went to a second reception hosted by another law firm. To get there, Kennedy said Stapleton needed help because she was intoxicated. Kennedy said he “had to steady her walking when we got to the sidewalk.”
At the second reception, Kennedy said that Stapleton then showed the same salacious website to others, perhaps including other Water Authority board members.
Stapleton has long been one of the most powerful women in a male-dominated industry. Westford used to work at the Water Authority for Stapleton.
“Ms. Stapleton’s action was a knowing, willful and significant breach of professional ethics intended to harm Ms. Westford and her professional reputation for no legitimate purpose,” Record, the Metropolitan chairman, wrote.
It’s unclear who posted the accusation about Westford to the website, though it seems likely that an investigation could seek to uncover the source of the post. It’s also unclear why Stapleton felt compelled to talk about such allegations in public or accuse Kennedy, who is not mentioned in the post.
“The allegations made by Maureen Stapleton that I am having a personal relationship with her board member, Tom Kennedy, is simply not true,” Westford said in statement to VOSD. “I am shocked and both professionally and personally offended that she would attempt to harm my reputation and credibility in this way.”
During a recent Water Authority board meeting, a significant topic of discussion by Water Authority officials was how unfair it was for Metropolitan to have a representative, like Westford, in San Diego.
Westford shows up to public meetings to speak about water issues and meets with officials across the county. She has attempted to push back against the Water Authority, which argues Metropolitan frequently spends too much money and attempts to undermine San Diego’s ability to chart its own course when it comes to water.
Metropolitan released Record’s letter and Kennedy’s written account after Voice of San Diego filed Public Records Act requests. The Water Authority and Rainbow have not yet released documents in response to related requests.
At least some Water Authority officials have been aware of the incident since it happened. But the Water Authority’s general counsel, who asked that all media questions be directed to him, declined to discuss the substance of the allegations. The Water Authority has also been working to make sure other board members and San Diego water officials do not talk publicly about it.
“It’s my understanding the incident is under review and could be discussed at an upcoming closed session, so I really can’t comment at this time,” said Gary Arant, a Water Authority board member who represents the Valley Center Municipal Water District.
Several other San Diego water officials also declined to comment, citing legal advice coming from the Water Authority.
Its general counsel, Mark Hattam, said the Water Authority has policies and procedures designed to address personnel matters.
“These policies and procedures call for a fair and impartial review process, and we intend to diligently implement that process,” he said in an email.
Metropolitan gathers water from the Colorado River and the rivers of Northern California and delivers it across Southern California. The Water Authority buys this water from Metropolitan and resells it to local water agencies, like the city of San Diego.
This simple-sounding relationship has bred years of litigation, resentment and tension – and cost ratepayers millions of dollars in legal fees. It’s also consumed the time and energy of numerous staffers at both agencies who signed up to provide water but have instead been stuck in a political morass.
A board made up of representatives from local water agencies in San Diego runs the Water Authority and has the power to hire and fire the general manager. Kennedy is a member of that board.
During a recent board meeting before the incident, Kennedy questioned the Water Authority’s approach to public relations, suggesting it was a bit snarky. The Water Authority has adopted political-style tactics that are nearly unheard of for a water agency. In 2012, it launched a website devoted solely to attacking Metropolitan. Last year, it paid $31,000 for a poll to test out negative talking points about Metropolitan.
During the encounter at the water industry reception, Stapleton accused Kennedy of siding with Metropolitan, according to Record’s letter.
Mark Watton, a former chairman of the Water Authority board who remains part of the agency’s inner circle, called Westford’s work on behalf of Metropolitan “annoying” but said it doesn’t affect the Water Authority’s “overall game plan.”
In the past, Metropolitan and its allies have investigated the background of Water Authority officials and their allies, raising ethical questions about Metropolitan – though most if not all of that information was political or financial, not sexual.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this before,” Watton said.
Still, Watton said he’s been watching the incident “getting spun up,” an indication that some within the Water Authority might view the incident as being overblown.
Some Metropolitan officials would certainly like to see Stapleton go, since she is a longtime foe. But Metropolitan also seems to be responding to a personal attack on one of its employees.
While Stapleton legally reports to the Water Authority board, observers who have spent years watching the agency say the board largely bends to her will.
Her career is filled with accomplishments that have increased the water available to the region. She has also, however, quarterbacked a bitter strategy of attacking Metropolitan, not always with much success. Her decisions have also helped make San Diego water some of the country’s most expensive.
Last year, the Water Authority largely lost a years-long court battle against Metropolitan. That seemed to weaken Stapleton’s hold on power, as several local water agencies began to question the agency’s direction.