The Valley Water board is laying the groundwork for an investigation of Director Gary Kremen.
On Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to have its ethics and conduct committee come up with the appropriate scope and timeline for an investigation into Kremen’s conduct with workers. The board also agreed to temporarily replace Kremen as chair with Director John Varela, who will serve in that capacity until an investigation is complete.
The committee, which consists of Varela and Directors Tony Estremera and Nai Hsueh, will report back to the board in a week.
Kremen proposed the board investigate whether he has sexually harassed any Valley Water employees following a San José Spotlight story about allegations made by a former staffer on his campaign for Santa Clara County assessor. According to the staffer, Kremen shared partially nude photos of himself and his partner in a campaign Dropbox and refused to remove them when asked. The staffer also claims Kremen threatened to ruin a local political club over a resolution vote regarding a foreign policy issue.
Kremen ended his campaign after the story broke, but refused calls from local leaders to step down from Valley Water, where he has served since 2014. He has denied the allegations and did so again during the meeting. He requested the investigation out of an abundance of caution, he said.
“I do want to provide the residents of our county with assurance that nothing is going on,” Kremen said.
Director Barbara Keegan said any investigation into Kremen should also address complaints brought to the board by employees and outside organizations. Keegan said she has been contacted by people with concerns about the recent media coverage of Valley Water.
“The public needs to trust us now more than ever,” she said, noting Valley Water is dealing with major issues, such as addressing a severe drought and climate change. “It’s really important for us to keep trust with the public, and for them to feel like we’re looking at things in a holistic, measured kind of way.”
According to public records, at least 11 employees have complained about Kremen’s behavior in recent years, with several accusing him of bullying behavior, such as threatening people, creating a “culture of fear” and insulting employees. None reviewed by San José Spotlight referenced sexual harassment.
Earlier this week, several environmental groups wrote to the board urging it to expand the scope of its investigation to include Kremen’s alleged mistreatment of environmental advocates in recent years.
The letter states as a result of Kremen’s actions, some advocates are reluctant to participate in board meetings for fear of reprisal. The letter is co-signed by Sierra Club California Director Brandon Dawson, Restore the Delta Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla and Katja Irvin, water committee chair for Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter.
“In our experience, it is highly unusual and improper for an elected board member to provide negative retorts to public comments made in good faith according to the posted agenda,” the letter reads. “Chairperson Kremen, however, has repeatedly made negative comments in response to our participation in district meetings, including making personal attacks.”
One resident, Doug Muirhead, wrote to the board criticizing the attacks on Kremen.
“That some South Bay political leaders have already urged Kremen to resign troubles me greatly,” Muirhead wrote. “Perhaps you feel ‘guilty until proven innocent’ is the only acceptable reaction in today’s political climate. I strongly object.”
The board tabled a discussion about whether it’s necessary to revise its process to address the temporary and voluntary vacancy by a board or chairperson.
“I don’t want any of this discussion to be centered completely around Gary,” said Director Linda LeZotte. “If we’re going to change some policies with regard to the chairperson, we have to be thinking about the next chairperson and the person to come (after that).”
Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Valley Water CEO Rick Callender is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.
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