Director Rebecca Eisenberg speaking at her dias
Valley Water Director Rebecca Eisenberg was censured and stripped of some responsibilities by the board on March 14, 2023. File photo.

An embattled Valley Water leader made harassing, discriminatory, abusive and demeaning comments to colleagues and underlings over a series of months, a recent investigation has found.

Attorneys from the Meyers Nave law firm said in a summary released Friday that various statements by Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Member Rebecca Eisenberg “more likely than not” amounted to discriminatory harassment based on sex, age or a person’s country of origin.

Investigators substantiated nine out of 25 total complaints accusing Eisenberg of harassing or offensive conduct from the water district’s CEO Rick Callender, District Counsel Carlos Orellana and other employees.

Eisenberg also leveled eight accusations of discrimination, harassment, abusive conduct or retaliation against Callender, Orellana and the district, though investigators determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support her claims.

The findings are the product of a long-running and expensive investigation started in February 2023 into the myriad of workplace complaints exchanged between Eisenberg and other Valley Water leaders beginning in December 2022.

Investigators completed the report Dec. 22, 2023, and the Valley Water board is scheduled to review and accept the findings at a special meeting on Feb. 22. A Valley Water spokesperson previously told San José Spotlight the investigations cost the district $587,497.

The board also voted Tuesday to set a meeting to consider censuring Eisenberg as a response to her taking thousands of pages of confidential documents related to the investigations from the district office without permission on Jan. 29.

Valley Water, the region’s largest water supplier funded by taxpayers, has seen years of ongoing disputes, political rifts, animosity and general division among its board and top officials.

“Unfortunately, I can’t comment and get in front of the discussion of the board,” Callender told San José Spotlight in response to the reports. “However, I will always stand up for and protect Valley Water staff — period.”

‘Men engineers’

Investigators determined that during a Dec. 29, 2022 meeting with a Valley Water employee, Eisenberg’s comment that dams cause floods and were constructed by “men engineers” who like to build things out of concrete were “problematic” and “derogatory towards men.” They said her comments amounted to discriminatory harassment.

Eisenberg told investigators she did not intend for her statement to be demeaning, but the report noted that “harmful intent by the harasser is not required to deem the conduct offensive” under district policies. Callender and the employee reported the comments because “they felt that the comments were anti-male, offensive and inappropriate.”

The report also details an incident at a June 2023 strategic planning meeting where Eisenberg told Board Chair Nai Hsueh that “English isn’t your first language so I want to make sure you understand.” Investigators said the comment was “national origin-based discriminatory harassment.” The comment came after Hsueh told Eisenberg she didn’t know what the Latin term ad hominem meant, which “shocked” Eisenberg.

Eisenberg told investigators she was not demeaning Hsueh on the basis of race or national origin, but instead was “accommodating (Hsueh’s) language barrier,” the report said.

Investigators said Eisenberg engaged in abusive conduct when she berated Orellana at a closed session meeting on Dec. 13, 2022 where Eisenberg expressed strong disagreement with Orellana’s approach to litigation in a case involving the district, and again on a phone call the following day.

During the meeting, investigators said evidence showed Eisenberg was disrespectful to Orellana “by implying he was incompetent and calling him ‘dishonest’… while yelling and talking over him, in the presence of his subordinates, as well as his outside counsel.”

Investigators said Eisenberg’s words and actions were “reasonably perceived to humiliate, belittle, or degrade Orellana,” and added that “witnesses observed him to be visibly shaken and near tears after the meeting.”

Eisenberg told San José Spotlight on Friday that her response to the report are detailed in a post she published on Medium, which includes claims the district and its CEO are making false and inflammatory accusations against her. Eisenberg’s post claims there is a “perception of tampering” around the investigation reports.

She said the entire investigation amounts to the district trying to “tone police” her.

“Even though this investigation was sham and they spent $600,000 and 13 months on it, as predicted, all they found is that I hurt the feelings of men paid well into the six figures who work for me,” Eisenberg told San José Spotlight.

Eisenberg’s claims

The investigation looked into claims and statements Eisenberg made in public that accused the district and some of its leaders of gender discrimination, though Eisenberg has said she opposed the district using money and time on further investigations, which she has called wasteful and unnecessary.

In one of her statements, Eisenberg claimed that then-Chair John Varela assigned board members to committees based on gender, which he denied. Investigators said the chair is given “wide latitude” to make assignments, and the “evidence supports that Varela may have provided preference and a higher number of committee assignments based on length of service on the board,” not gender.

Eisenberg later claimed that Varela removed her from a Washington, D.C. legislative trip on Feb. 28, 2023 in retaliation to her earlier claim against him about committee assignments.

The purpose of the trip was to meet with senators and representatives to help secure funding for district projects. While Varela acknowledged withdrawing her invite, he told investigators he did so “based on her behavior, which caused him to believe that she was not qualified to represent the (district).”

Varela told investigators he withdrew her invite after seeing a video of her Feb. 7, 2023 presentation to The Morning Forum of Los Altos, when “Eisenberg made disparaging comments about (district) projects and told constituents that (the district’s) dams and reservoirs are ‘filled with poop water.’”

Investigators said Eisenberg referenced “poop water” at least six times in the presentation, and incorrectly suggested that the district recycles wastewater, when it does not. She said the district “was not spending time making water better, but instead spending its money on a dam,” the report said about the presentation.

It was reasonable for Varela “to perceive Eisenberg’s explicit criticism of the Board and (district) projects…as counterproductive to the trip and conflicting with her obligations,” investigators determined. They said there was no evidence the withdrawal was retaliatory.

Eisenberg told investigators the presentation “was ‘not [her] best work’ and that she probably used the word ‘poop’ too much.”

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