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Mon, Jul

Metropolitan Water District Board Faces Moment of Truth…And Punts

THE EASTSIDER - On June 13, 2024, the Board of Directors of the behemoth water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, met behind closed doors in special session to consider firing its General Manager Adel Hagekhalil.  Instead, it opted to place him on paid administrative leave for 90 days, as investigations into several complaints against Hagekhalil proceed.  It was a dramatic turn to what has been a controversial and troubling three-year tenure for Hagekhalil. 

Regular readers of CityWatch will recall that controversy swirling around Hagekhalil is nothing new.  But what seemed to kick start the MWD Board into action this time around, was a bombshell letter of complaint from Hagekhalil’s own Chief Financial Officer, Ms. Katano Kasaine, sent to Board Chairman Adan Ortega. 

In a 14-page letter loaded with specific details, Kasaine argued that she has endured retaliation, harassment and a hostile work environment under Hagekhalil.  Here is Kasaine in her own words: 

“Microaggressions and systematic exclusion from core meetings and conferences have become a daily occurrence. As the Chief Financial Officer responsible for the organization's financial integrity, I am often left uninformed about key negotiations and agreements with significant financial implications for Metropolitan. Frequently, I only learn of these agreements after they have been finalized, even when they involve multi-year commitments crucial for future budgets."

General Manager Adel Hagekhalil, Chief Financial Officer, Ms. Katano Kasaine

Our General Manager, Adel Hagekhalil, appears to view my role merely as a title, believing that anyone in his trusted inner circle can fulfill my duties. He delegates my authority to his assistants, who then direct me as they please. Despite repeatedly imploring Mr. Hagekhalil to address why I am being sidelined, bullied, harassed, and disrespected by him and his trusted staff, he constantly dismisses my concerns. His refusal to acknowledge these issues or take appropriate action has compelled me to write this letter.” 

Touching on a theme that CityWatch has reported on over the past year, Kasaine goes to great lengths to show how Hagekhalil has surrounded himself with an “inner circle” of highly paid cronies and consultants, who’ve earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in water rate payers’ money, with no accountability, and little to no work product to show for their exorbitant fees. 

“The establishment of an entire shadow leadership team, wielding more power than those holding official titles, is a fundamental problem that permeates the structure and culture of the organization. If left unaddressed, it will undermine the progress we have collectively supported in fostering inclusivity and the changes spearheaded by our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.” 

Sexism and racism, charges that multiple sources have leveled at Hagekhalil, also are a part of Kasaine’s complaint.  Again, in her own words: 

“Furthermore, as the first Black woman to hold my position, I am keenly aware of my role and responsibility. I have an extensive career in finance, spanning nearly three decades, and I’m respected in my industry for the work I have done. (I was recognized and awarded the prestigious national award, the 2018 Freda Johnson Award for Trailblazing Women in Public Finance.) I mention this to underscore that I am not a tokenized individual and do not need to be told to step aside for my male counterparts to assume my responsibilities. I do not take my job for granted, nor do I take anything I do lightly.

Therefore, when Mr. Hagekhalil belittled and sidelined me in favor of my male counterparts, I took it very seriously. Despite having already delegated tasks to my staff, his repeated insistence that I step back made me suspect a preference for male employees over me. 

Furthermore, on numerous occasions, Mr. Hagekhalil has disregarded my contributions, only to accept the same ideas when presented by my male colleagues. His preference for male staff presenting and leading discussions, exemplified when he suggested my Finance Group Manager take the lead at Board meetings, left me feeling humiliated and belittled.” 

In a particularly damning statement that really sums everything up, Kasaine writes: 

“Throughout my nearly 30 years of government service, I have encountered toxic work environments, but none as hostile and dysfunctional as Metropolitan.” 

So who is Kasaine, and should she be believed?  According to sources who reached out to CityWatch, she is a highly credible government finance executive who was hired away from the City of Oakland during the tenure of Hagekhalil’s predecessor, respected former GM Jeff Kightlinger.  And yes, she should be believed. 

One MWD insider who has worked directly for Kasaine put it this way: 

“Look, as with any executive, we don’t agree with every single decision that she makes.  But I never doubted that at heart, she was a decent, conscientious person, who works extremely hard.  Like, night and day, 24/7 hard.  And the irony is that for a long time she worked very hard to support Adel, even after the rest of us had realized what an idiot he was.  So for her to come out the way she did…wow.  The Board better be paying attention.” 

kasaine, the latest and last(?) straw

Again folks, the Hagekhalil controversy did not begin with Kasaine.  As reported here at CityWatch, by both me and my colleague Jack Humphreville, it’s been one s-h-i-t show after another since Hagekhalil came to MWD nearly three years ago to the date.

Recall that one of Hagekhalil’s first acts as GM was to ignore clear reports of racism and harassment, because he happened to have taken a liking to the perpetrator (herself an influential union steward).  Rather than protect the victims, he decided to protect the perpetrator, going so far as to promote her.  To the DEI Office of all places! 

Recall too that when one of the victims filed a complaint of his own against Hagekhalil, MWD through its outside law firm Meyers Nave, pulled out all the stops to put the kibosh on any investigation (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s illegal).  Not surprisingly, this individual ultimately sued, and a trial, potentially the first of many, is now set for this October with Hagekhalil under court order to sit for a deposition next month. 

Then, there was Hagekhalil’s efforts to drive out MWD’s long-time Human Resources Director Diane Pitman in early 2023.  Like I’ve always said, if you wanna have free reign over a bureaucracy, step one is to get rid of your HR Director, and that’s exactly what Hagekhalil did, dismissing the 25-year MWD veteran and HR professional with a spotless employment record. 

Then, there’s been the series of crony hirings which have bypassed MWD’s established hiring practices, culminating in the anointment of his friend Mohsen Mortada as his $423,000 a year do-nothing “chief of staff.”  I covered that one earlier this year, and according to Kasaine and others, that hiring continues to rankle the workforce. 

And of course all of this is in the midst of a deteriorating financial picture at MWD, to which Hagekhalil has helped contribute through his sweetheart union contracts, crony consultant deals, and other profligate spending (one source reports, unconfirmed by CityWatch, that Hagekhalil routinely hosted catered lunches for himself and others in the executive suites…even though MWD has its own cafeteria in its lobby). 

So What Does the MWD Board Do Next? 

Put all this together, and many within MWD were hoping that the Board would take the long overdue step of dismissing Hagekhalil at its June 13th meeting.  Sources familiar with the deliberations say that there were definitely some Directors in favor of doing exactly that. 

Unfortunately, and much to the chagrin of many MWD employees, a series of outside environmental groups converged on the June 13th Board meeting to dutifully voice their support for Hagekhalil, with no regard for anything Kasaine had to say. 

That, along with pro-Hagekhalil Directors representing the City of Los Angeles, and the San Diego County Water Authority, ultimately caused the Board to punt.  So for the next 90 or more days, Hagekhalil will cling to his employment, and MWD will sit in limbo as it awaits the results of investigations into Kasaine’s complaint and others. 

Meanwhile, sources say that Kasaine is now in constant fear of retaliation, dreading the possibility that Chair Ortega and the MWD Board will ultimately sweep the whole affair under the rug and bring Hagekhalil back to work. 

I wouldn’t put it past MWD to do just that.  But happily, the verdict on Hagekhalil already seems to be in, courtesy of MWD staff, most of whom seem to believe that Hagekhalil is finished as General Manager.  I leave you with some of their quotes: 

“It’s unfortunate that it took a formal notification from the assistant GM for [the Board] to finally listen to what has been going on.” 

“I just want to enjoy the next 90 days under our interim [General Manager] Deven [Upadhyay].  He’s the guy that should have been the General Manager all along.” 

“Hell, even if he comes back, he’s done.  He lost us a long time ago, and there is zero respect for the guy in the field, zero.  Board members need to open their eyes.” 

“The morale around here is lower than a caterpillar’s ass.  Adel Hagekhalil did that!”

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch).