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Raging Water

Water Power: The Santa Clara Valley Water District is the third largest public agency in the county, with an annual budget of about $350 million, which goes toward flood control and providing water.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

In a torrent of racial recriminations, the valley's water agency struggles to right itself. But, after decades of neglect, is the district crying crocodile tears?

By Michael Learmonth

SINCE METRO'S STORY on alleged racism at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, "Murky Waters," hit the newsstands Jan. 16, the district has responded much the way it would to a flood: sandbagging, shoring up levies and putting staff on a high state of alert.

Yet still the water rises.

At least a dozen internal investigations are under way, the director of the office in charge of affirmative action has been suspended indefinitely and a grand jury has apparently reopened its own investigation of the $1 billion agency, the third largest public agency in Santa Clara County.

The anonymous survey obtained and reported on by Metro last month, days before it was released to the district's board of directors, revealed allegations of racial harassment, discrimination and theft. It was based on employee interviews conducted by a consultant during the past year.

Among the incidents recounted in the surveys were these: Vasona Dam employees posing as Ku Klux Klan members in a photo posted on the wall, employee theft from maintenance facilities and even discrimination by the affirmative action office itself.

"Change takes a while to do. Recognizing it is the first step," explains Stan Williams, general manager for two years, sitting in a modest one-window office on the first floor. "Do all the employees fully accept that the 'old boys' days are over? I'm not so sure. There are probably two camps: those that think things haven't changed fast enough and those that maybe feel we've changed too much. And right now we're at a situation where both of those are pretty dissatisfied groups."

In the wake of last month's revelations, the board of directors ordered district staff to draft a statement on diversity for its approval, to investigate each incident alleged in the anonymous surveys and to bring back an action plan.

Luis Ortiz, a member of the employee group Fairness, Opportunity, Recognition and Understanding in a Multicultural Environment (FORUM), testified before the board: "We, the FORUM group, would like to attest that the report submitted by Dr. [Carlene] Young last week is factual and that the report documents once more the 'climate' at the district."

"Everybody knew this was going on, but nobody did anything about it until the report," says Rebecca Cuffman, president of the district employees' association. "I'm getting frustrated that they are not moving fast enough. It must be hard for Stan [Williams], but to be honest, that's what he gets paid the big bucks to do. To Stan's credit, I think he wants to be open about all this now. Everybody knows it's a problem. You can't really hide it anymore."

"This will certainly test his strength," concurs board member Bob Gross of the task ahead of Williams. "At the present time I have no reason to doubt his ability."

ONE OF WILLIAMS' responses to the survey was to put Tanya Young, the district's African American equal opportunity officer, on administrative leave. Days after her departure, 100 of the 600 employees of the Santa Clara Valley Water District left their blueprints, spreadsheets, phones and files to attend a special lunch that Young had put together in honor of Black History Month. The program, "An African American History in Narrative and Song," was held at the Winfield Facility, a warehouse across the Guadalupe River from district headquarters on the Almaden Expressway. Employees enjoyed a catered menu of "soul food," including fried chicken, green beans and sweet potatoes. Oscar Battle Jr., president emeritus of the African-American Faculty and Staff Association at SJSU, spoke on the history of blacks in America. Afterward, Nmon Ford-Livene, artist in residence at Opera San José, performed for the group.

The two-hour program marked the first time Black History Month had ever been officially observed by the water district.

"I thought it was cordial but tense," remembers Matthew Ajiake, a deputy group manager at the district. "The speaker talked about what black Americans have gone through--the remnants of slavery."

Ironically, Young, who was the target of a number of complaints in the surveys, was not permitted to attend the event.

"I've taken some personnel actions, and there may be some others," Williams says. "Other than that, I really can't comment."

Carlene Young, the consultant who conducted the organizational culture analysis, says that in organizations like the water district, it's easy for the affirmative action office to become the target of suspicion among employees who don't know its true function or how much power it wields.

"The office itself draws a lot of negative reaction," Young says. "I don't see how she [Tanya Young] can carry the burden for everything that is going on there, even though there might have been problems with her office."

Since submitting the results of her survey, analyst Young says she fielded "six or seven calls from people who felt they had been retaliated against." One caller said that when he had asked for permission from his supervisor to attend the black history function, the supervisor took the time to explain why he thought such an event was unnecessary and why he had voted for Proposition 209. "You have to work with this person, yet they're expressing all these opinions," Young says. "Do you file a complaint or internalize it?"

"A fearful organization never gets better," concedes Williams, making an observation which could apply to past decades of social neglect at the district. Part of eliminating fear, he says, is handling the cases better as they come up. "I think it's an issue in all workplaces. It's not going to go away, but it should be reduced to a level of activity so that we deal with these issues on a day-to-day, case-by-case basis."

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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