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Water Over the Bridge

By Michael Learmonth

LYNDA RAMIREZ JONES, longtime board secretary of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, stood before hundreds of district employees last week beneath a huge white tent pitched outside district headquarters off the Almaden Expressway.

Speaking passionately, Jones accused district management of stalling for almost seven years since the board first demanded an affirmative action plan. In a dramatic fashion, she held up copies of Santa Clara County's and the City of San Jose's affirmative action plans. "Now why can't we adopt a similar plan?" she asked angrily. She then threatened to recommend that the county withhold funding from the district, or even to file a class-action lawsuit.

"If this is what it takes to get an elected governing board to promote a workforce that reflects the community, then so be it," she said.

Invited by their board of directors, water district employees had come to air their concerns. Literally. Director Stan Williams introduced members of the Grand Jury investigating the district. Then he promised there would be no reprisals.

One by one they took the lecturn, white-collar managers following maintenance workers. Some described personal experiences with racism at the district. Some expressed support for a "diversity statement" adopted by the board two weeks earlier. Some, choking back tears, said that it was nowhere near enough.

Ongoing Saga

BELEAGUERED BY accusations of institutional racism and wracked by years of restructuring, the Santa Clara Valley Water District continues to struggle for answers to problems that just won't go away. An analysis conducted by a consultant late last year revealed a startling number of incidents of racism, many of which happened years ago but remain fresh in the minds of some employees.

Since the study, the staff has undertaken scores of investigations. One of the most intense focused on a photograph posted in the district's Vasona pump station which seemed to depict employees wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods.

After hundreds of interviews of former and current employees, investigators determined recently that the picture was actually a gag. The image, investigators found, had been intended to resemble the Coneheads. Someone later wrote "KKK" with a felt marker on the bottom of the picture.

Investigators are still trying to discern how long that ill-conceived joke adorned the wall of a public building.

"It was a mischievous prank that got out of hand," said Bob Gross, a member of the board. "Someone just failed to remove it immediately."

In holding the open-air meeting, the board hoped that getting the issue out would help them better direct the staff and give employees an opportunity to vent and let go of the past.

"If we don't find a resolution to these problems, we'll end up in litigation," Gross said, "or we'll have good employees who will leave."

Yet during the same meeting, as the staff looked to them for leadership, board members made another landmark decision. They voted 4-3 to cut their meetings from four to two per month.

The vote left Gross incensed.

"We are one of the most complex water districts in the state outside of L.A.," he said. "There is no way in hell you can walk in twice a month and think you can run the third-largest public organization in the county."

Reducing the number of monthly board meetings by 50 percent was one of Larry Wilson's goals when he became a board member three years ago. Wilson, a former employee of the district, said staff time will be saved in preparing a board agenda every week. He said that rather than four half-day meetings a month, the board could meet two times for a full day.

But there is a widespread perception at the district that the board has failed to hold the feet of district management to the fire when it comes to the problems last week's meeting was meant to address. Board members admit the pace toward reform has been sluggish.

"There has been some frustration about getting things done in a timely fashion," Wilson said. "I get impatient."

"The public doesn't know the massive empire that is here," Gross said, adding that reducing the frequency of board contact with the staff will make oversight more difficult. "I don't think it is right to turn a billion-dollar agency over to bureaucrats."

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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