Silicon Valley elected leader wages war with agency
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, the region’s largest water supplier, continues to battle personnel issues. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    New records show rising tensions, turmoil and dysfunction at the region’s largest water supplier — with one of its own directors now demanding the public agency pay her attorney fees in her fight against them.

    Valley Water Director Rebecca Eisenberg has ruffled feathers since taking office in January. But six months into her tenure, emails obtained by San José Spotlight reveal the infighting has reached a new level with the director demanding money from the district to defend herself.

    Eisenberg is also threatening the district for complying with a public records request made by a resident, according to the emails, and blasting its decision to boot her from a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

    Eisenberg herself faces accusations of gender discrimination and intimidation toward men stemming from alleged complaints from workers. But Eisenberg says that probe is just retaliation after she complained about sexism and a hostile work environment created by the district’s leadership — namely CEO Rick Callendar and attorney Carlos Orellana.

    Eisenberg in March hired a personal attorney to defend her in the investigation. Now she wants the district to pay for it. In an email from March 2, Eisenberg demanded the district send her $10,000 by midnight to pay for her legal fees. She claimed the district paid for other directors’ legal costs in investigations against them — a charge the district’s outside attorney denied except for one unrelated case. Eisenberg threatened to send her legal bills to the district if she didn’t receive a check.

    “They hired lawyers to do this and both of those lawyers are still being paid for with taxpayer money for five months,” Eisenberg told San José Spotlight. “I want to know how much they spent on those lawyers. And at the same time, they refuse to cover the costs of my defense, even though they’ve done it (before).”

    The district’s lawyers maintained the agency has no legal obligation to pay for an employee or board member’s legal representation, but said it paid for Director Joe Judge during a probe by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In that case, the district and Judge were co-respondents.

    Eisenberg claimed the district also paid her predecessor’s legal fees when he was investigated for bullying and verbally assaulting workers. Gary Kremen, the former director who held Eisenberg’s seat, said he paid for his own attorney.

    Additionally, Eisenberg called a public records request abusive, baseless and illegal in the same email where she made the payment demands. She insulted Orellana, the district’s lawyer, for complying with the request and said any attempts to collect information or records without her consent is a civil rights violation.

    “Any licensed attorney with the smallest bit of competence would recognize this request to be overly broad and abusive, and failure to object to this request is so unprofessional and unethical, that it could lead to professional censure, penalties, and/or disbarment,” Eisenberg wrote in the letter.

    Valley Water board member Rebecca Eisenberg is currently facing a gender discrimination investigation. In turn, she said the probe is just retaliation after she complained about sexism and a hostile work environment. File photo.

    Eisenberg said she turned over records except those from employees who complained about Callender. She said those messages are privileged and she won’t divulge them.

    “Over my dead body,” Eisenberg told San José Spotlight. “…it is the wrong thing to do. I won’t do it.”

    The district’s lawyers said the district will seek a court order if Eisenberg refuses to comply with a search for public records if the requester sues the district.

    Booted off the trip

    Eisenberg also claims retaliation because she was removed from a trip to Washington D.C.

    The district’s outside attorneys, Samantha Zutler and Tamar Burke, told Eisenberg she was booted because of disparaging comments she’s made about the district’s infrastructure projects.

    “Attendance is at the discretion of the chair. Director Eisenberg has made comments in public meetings denigrating significant district projects, particularly dams and reservoirs, as well as commenting that water storage facilities engender ‘poop water,'” the lawyers wrote. “Given Director Eisenberg’s public comments, it does not make sense that she participate in the trip.”

    Eisenberg didn’t deny making the comment but doubled down on claims that being uninvited is personal. She planned to meet with congressional leaders, including Sen. Cory Booker, before being kicked off the trip.

    Callender stood by the decision to remove Eisenberg. He declined further comment.

    “As CEO, I’m committed to diverse representation of our workforce, inclusivity in our work environment, and equitable access for all employees,” Callender told San José Spotlight.

    Both investigations — the one into Eisenberg for gender discrimination and her claim of sexism — are ongoing with no estimate for when they’ll end.

    Contact Madison Wilber at minute[email protected] or follow @minutewithmadison on Instagram.

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