San Diego County Water Authority
A June 2018 meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority board / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Two years ago, Connie Williams got a job as an administrative assistant at the San Diego County Water Authority. It was a public-sector job – seemingly secure and with a pension.

“You can’t retire in California and so I was just like, ‘Look what I did for my family!’” Williams said. “I was so proud of myself.”

But after only about a year, the Water Authority fired Williams for sending a piece of personal mail from the office.

“Then, yeah, it went away,” Williams said. “And it’s been horrific.”

In the months afterward, she had to sell her belongings and borrow money to make ends meet, traded in her car, pulled her daughter out of extracurriculars and moved her family and her elderly parents into a cheaper house.

Employment cases are often messy, involving a combination of factors made public and those not, but the Water Authority’s case against Williams is striking. The agency harshly punished her for an apparently minor infraction – billing a single FedEx package to the Water Authority. Even that infraction may have been the result of a simple misunderstanding.

A review of Williams’ case suggests the Water Authority, the agency in charge of making sure San Diego has enough water, can be mirthless, even compared with other bureaucracies; when employees there fall out of favor, the agency can find a way to sideline or get rid of them.

By contrast, the agency’s long-time general manager, Maureen Stapleton, was recently accused of harassing one of the agency’s board members and publicly embarrassing the agency during a water industry event where she appeared intoxicated. So far, the agency has said little about that case and declined to release an already-completed investigation of the incident. On Thursday, during Stapleton’s annual performance review, the agency’s board of directors, led by Encinitas City Councilman Mark Muir, voted not to give Stapleton a raise or bonus this year.

Williams is one of several current or former employees in the Water Authority’s finance department who have recently left the department or filed workplace complaints. Williams and a current employee, Eric Adachi, along with their attorney, shared information about their cases because they believe the issues involved touch on deeper problems within the Water Authority.

Adachi recently complained to the state’s Department of Fair Employment & Housing that he had “witnessed rampant harassment and retaliation against co-workers.” He also said he was passed over for a promotion and instead a staffer with “absolutely no experience” is in charge of investing several hundred million dollars – money collected from San Diego water bills.

Because the Water Authority would not disclose the qualifications necessary to hold the position or the qualifications of the person who is now in the job, it was not immediately possible to verify Adachi’s claims. Water Authority spokesman Mike Lee said the agency’s investments are “primarily managed” by an outside firm, San Diego-based Chandler Asset Management.

Testimony given by a Water Authority official in the Williams case also raises questions about the agency’s handling of personnel matters. Ashley Kite, an in-house human resources staffer who investigated Williams, said she did not make audio recording of her interviews with witnesses and then destroyed her own handwritten notes of those interviews.

Williams’ wrongful termination case is the most vivid, in part because her attorney, Marlea Dell’Anno, shared transcripts of an ongoing arbitration proceeding, which is essentially a trial before a private judge. If Williams wins, she could get her job back or damages.

In her opening statement during arbitration, the Water Authority’s outside attorney, Stefanie Vaudreuil of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, said Williams “damaged her reputation beyond repair when she used Water Authority resources for personal business.”

Here’s what happened: Williams bought a pack of gum on the agency’s credit card, and seems to have accidently sent a piece of mail on the agency’s dime.

Last September, Williams sent a FedEx package from the Water Authority office. The FedEx, Williams said, was paperwork to break open her husband’s retirement fund because he had been injured, sick and out of work.

She checked a box on the package to indicate the bill for sending the package – which totaled $70.48 – should be paid by his employer. But the package ended up being billed to the Water Authority because it had the Water Authority’s FedEx account number on it. When she found out, Williams said she offered to reimburse the Water Authority but said she couldn’t remember how the Water Authority’s FedEx account number ended up on the package in what looked like her handwriting.

In late October, she was put on administrative leave. In early December, she was fired.

It wasn’t until this March that a clear explanation for Williams’ conduct was offered by Sandra Louis, a long-time front desk receptionist who the Water Authority called as a witness. Louis said Williams had tried to bill her husband’s employer for the package but Louis told her that outgoing FedEx packages were supposed to have the Water Authority’s account number on them. Louis gave Williams the number to write on the package.

After Louis said that, Dell’Anno accused the Water Authority of withholding evidence: The Water Authority had been accusing Williams of stealing the account number to misappropriate funds, yet she had been directed by a fellow employee to put it on the package.

The Water Authority also criticized Williams for buying a pack of gum when she was at the grocery store buying snacks for a Water Authority event.

“It’s just insanity,” Dell’Anno said in an interview, “the amount of effort that is put into these petty little things.”

Dell’Anno said recent testimony by a Water Authority employee during the Williams case showed that others at the agency have billed personal expenses to the Water Authority and then reimbursed the agency.

Williams said she’d known her relationship with her boss, finance director Lisa Marie Harris, had been on the rocks for a while. Williams said the relationship soured when Williams asked for overtime so she could complete a training program the Water Authority sent her to. Williams also said the general manager’s office didn’t like that she’d been taking sick days during her first months on the job – something Williams said she couldn’t help because of her sick husband.

Williams said when things turned south, Harris made Williams put everything she did on a calendar, including the bathroom breaks Williams took.

“It was not a rule of the Water Authority, it was Lisa Marie,” Williams said in an interview.

At another point, Williams said she needed to leave work because her husband was in intensive care and on the verge of death. Williams said Harris responded by saying, “Well, if you think that’s the best use of your time, that’s your decision.”

When Williams lost her job, she had been the family’s breadwinner.

“I had to make money, so when I didn’t make money, everybody fell down,” she said.

The Water Authority did not provide its own version of events.

Instead, Mark Hattam, the Water Authority’s general counsel, said comparing Stapleton and Williams’ cases is “editorializing based on lack of knowledge and misinformation.”

“As you know, the Water Authority Board has adopted specific policies and procedures to address personnel matters,” he said in an email. “These policies and procedures call for fair and impartial review processes.  We have followed, and are following, these policies, procedures, and processes.”

The Water Authority recently increased its spending on outside attorneys to deal with employment issues.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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