Valley Water Investigation Finds No Racism in Opposing New CEO

A third-party investigation into two Valley Water directors who voted against the recent appointment of CEO Rick Callender—the first Black man to lead the agency—determined that their actions were not motivated by race.

Callender, a long-time Valley Water employee who most recently served as the chief of external affairs, was appointed by the seven-member Board of Directors last May and took over in July following former CEO Norma Camacho’s retirement.

But the decision to put Callender at the helm of the agency wasn’t unanimous. Barbara Keegan, Linda LeZotte and Director Nai Hsueh voted against his appointment.

The day following the vote, San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP President Rev. Jethroe Moore sent a letter to Valley Water demanding an investigation into Keegan and LeZotte.

“It appears that we have a clear case of ‘managing while Black,’ occurring right here in Silicon Valley,” Moore wrote.

In the letter, the local NAACP president accused Keegan and LeZotte of “releasing incomplete confidential personnel information to members of the public and the media, and lobbying external people during the course of a confidential hiring process.”

Moore also alleged that one of the women tried to “label” Callender “of being convicted of a variety of felonious criminal activities to try and keep him from obtaining the position.”

Two months later, Valley Water retained Berkeley-based Oppenheimer Investigations Group to conduct the independent review, which included interviewing all seven directors, Callender, Moore and six other witnesses.

The 12-page report, which the board will review at its Jan. 26 meeting, discussed whether Keegan and LeZotte leaked confidential information from Callender’s personnel file, spread rumors about him being a sexual harasser and asked the agency to conduct a criminal background check on him as part of the hiring process.

But the overarching question that the investigation sought to answer was whether any of Keegan and LeZotte’s actions were related to Callender’s race.

According to the report, investigators found a “preponderance of evidence” that Keegan and LeZotte weren’t being racist by objecting to his appointment. Instead, they found the pair had serious concerns about claims of sexual harassment against Callender.

Those concerns stemmed from a 2008 complaint from one of Callender’s colleagues.

While many of the details of the 2008 investigation are private, the employee—Jessica Collins—ended up taking Callender and Valley Water to court in 2009 after the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) affirmed her right to sue for sexual harassment, assault, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the lawsuit, which she eventually dropped, Collins said that from September 2007 to February 2008, Callender subjected her to unwanted advances and comments. His behavior allegedly escalated in fall 2007 when the pair attended a conference in Chico and “Callender kept insisting on buying drinks and hanging out,” and tried to kiss her.

After the conference, Collins said in the lawsuit that “Callender would be very nice to her for a period of time, paying her compliments both personally and professionally, building up to a point when he would make an advance, whether it be through inviting her to Napa or texting her to have drinks.”

Once she rejected his advances, she said, he turned “hostile.”

After filing an internal complaint, a three-month investigation ensued that resulted in investigators recommending that Callender be terminated, the lawsuit states. However, then-Valley Water CEO Olga Steele decided not to fire him.

Investigators with Oppenheimer reviewed the 2008 complaint and subsequent investigation, which said Callender violated Valley Water’s policies against harassment and found that it was “thorough and fair.” Callender reportedly asserted that those findings were the “result of racism.”

Investigators Amy Oppenheimer, Julie Matlof Kennedy and Vida Thomas eventually decided that Keegan and LeZotte “raising and discussing Callender's past sexual harassment cannot fairly be considered, in and of itself, racist.”

They also found that Keegan and LeZotte did not leak confidential information from Callender’s personnel file. They did, however, find that Keegan and LeZotte discussed concerns they had about Callender and the overall appointment process.

Notably, investigators also found that directors Gary Kremen, Tony Estremera, Dick Santos and John Varela also spoke to at least one non-board member about the appointment process.

Keegan and LeZotte both acknowledged during the investigation that they suggested a criminal background check. Some other board directors supported the idea, but there was a disagreement about what kind of background check would be done and if it was reserved just for finalists.

Callender declined to comment on the results of the investigation, stating “it’s not mine to discuss.” LeZotte also denied a request for comment and Keegan did not respond a request for comment.

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

8 Comments

  1. I like the whole ‘independent’ review. Who is paying for it?

    It would be very unusual for an outside agency to stray to far from the person that hired them. It would hurt business.

    Exactly what is the financial relationship between Valley Water and SJI?

    I mean, how much is involved with this sponsorship?

  2. For awhile there I was worried these women had voted against Callender because of his race. Turns out it was only beacause he’s a male. Phew!
    And I like the photo of the Board posing in front of a pond. It gives the impression that Valley Water is actually fond of actual water. Don’t worry though. That particular pond along with many others are dry, weed covered depressions in the earth now.
    Valley Water has drained the ponds. If only they’d drain the swamp.

  3. How did you conclude it was because he’s male? Isn’t it because he sexually harassed a woman at work? As CEO, isn’t he the one who sets tone and is responsible for whether employees feel safe? This complaint backfired, resulting in the re-unearthing of Callender’s past wrongs. An earlier recommendation for termination due to harassment should have been a dealbreaker. Why didn’t this investigation speak with staff about whether there continues to be bullying or harassment conduct?

  4. No, it’s a new world with new rules.
    In today’s woke America the onus is upon the accused to prove that they aren’t guilty of claims (even baseless ones) of racism, sexism, or homophobia leveled against them.

  5. Liberal racism and sexism are a thorough, repeat thorough, infection.

    More sociopolitical “progress” and related disease as the state declines…

  6. Rick Callender happens to sit on the Board Of Directors over at San Jose Spotlight.

    Nice to see Valley Water is well represented in small media.

    How wonderfully benevolent and kind of them to provide such service!

  7. I thought Rev. Jethroe Moore was an awesome guy, but his flippant accusation of racism here is gross and ridiculous, and it completely undercuts his credibility as a purveyor of justice. If Moore thinks voting against a black candidate is racist, can I point out how sexist it is to look the other way on sexual harassment and then attack the moral character of women because they refused to do the same? At least Moore can still call these women racists in private with Callender and the four-man-majority of the water board at the next Boys’ Club meeting.

  8. Let Rev. Moore pay for the fruitless investigation. Ratepayers should not be punished for his imaged discrimination.

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