- Reporters Desk
By Christian Guzman, Contributing Reporter
Two board members from the Los Angeles Harbor Area are fighting for re-election to the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, which manages groundwater for almost 4 million residents of Southern Los Angeles County.
Robert Katherman of Division 2 and Albert Robles of Division 5 are veteran members of the Water Replenishment District board, but controversy during their current terms may make them vulnerable.
Katherman was contacted for an interview. However, he did not to respond to the request.
The main challengers, Jim Kennedy and Ronald Gonzales-Lawrence, believe they have the experience necessary to replace Katherman and Robles. They said that their motivation to oust the incumbents comes from Katherman’s and Robles’ unethical behavior and multiple legal scandals
The following are vignettes of the board candidates for Division 2 and 5:
Kennedy, who is running against Katherman, is a water policy advisor. He recently worked with the Los Angeles City Bureau of Sanitation on storm and wastewater collection systems. In 2004, he worked with the city on Proposition 0, which authorized funding of up to $500 million on sustainable water projects.
Kennedy also participated on the Ballona Creek Watershed Task Force and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. The Water Replenishment District contracted work out to Kennedy to build support and understanding for two major district initiatives, the Groundwater Reliability Improvement Program and Water Independence Now. The ongoing initiatives seek to protect and restore groundwater sources by utilizing recycled-water and stormwater.
Kennedy wants to continue the use of recycled-water and stormwater.
“Right now the WRD’s service area is getting almost 50 percent of its water from the aquifer,” Kennedy said. “[But] there is a limit on how much is allowed to be pumped out each year. With increased capacity we can get more water from the aquifer and have more space to put recycled water and captured stormwater.”
He acknowledged that no matter how much storage capacity for water there is, it still needs to be safeguarded from pollutants. Kennedy said he would work to end the systematic water contamination of district communities.
“The WRD has taken a back seat in going after polluters, and deferred that responsibility to the [Environmental Protection Agency] and the Los Angeles Regional Water Control Board,” Kennedy said. “I will use the authority of the water board to make those responsible stop and pay for the removal of contaminants.”
Kennedy is in favor of the Water Replenishment District’s proposed Groundwater Master Plan because it will help facilitate that coordination.
However, he is opposed to the rate of progress that the district has made on the plan.
On Sept. 1, the district was supposed to have a meeting regarding the Groundwater Master Plan. The meeting was cancelled because Katherman and Robles were not present to make a quorum. Instead, they appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court; Katherman was challenging Kennedy’s ballot designation of ‘Water Policy Advisor,’ and Robles was Katherman’s attorney.
Kennedy represented himself at the hearing and with the evidence he presented, his ballot designation was upheld.
“Katherman and Robles decided that taking me to court was more important than their obligation to do their duty and serve the public,” Kennedy said. “I’m running to replace this compromised leadership.”
Ronald Gonzales-Lawrence, who is running against Robles, was on the board of education for the Little Lake City School District and is a staff member for California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Under Rendon, Gonzales-Lawrence worked on water policy, assisting with initiatives such as Proposition 1 (the state water bond) and the Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization. During that time, Gonzales-Lawrence worked with the Water Replenishment District. He believed that the district could do more to serve the people, so he decided to run for a seat.
Gonzales wants the Water Replenishment District to become more active with storm water capture and reuse. He mentioned that operators of stormwater sewer systems have to capture and clean sewer water before they can discharge it. Once discharged it goes via the Los Angeles River to the Pacific ocean.
“[The process] costs an estimated $10 billion,” Gonzales-Lawrence said. “Why should we spend that to just discharge it? We could put it in our groundwater.”
Gonzales-Lawrence also wants to help increase the advocacy for water conservation.
“Environmental advocacy should not just be on the west side [of Los Angeles], we need to engage everyone,” Gonzales-Lawrence said.
As Rendon’s staff member, Gonzales-Lawrence worked with organizations like East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and Communities for a Better Environment. With this experience he believes he will be able to facilitate positive relationships with a wide range of constituents.
For Gonzales-Lawrence, a part of successfully building those relationships is to make it convenient for the public to participate in the district’s activities. He said it is almost impossible for people with jobs to attend certain district meetings, which are at noon on Thursdays. He wants to change that time. He also wants district policies and procedures to be indexed and online for the public.
However, before the Water Replenishment District can effectively implement any meaningful changes and policies, Gonzales-Lawrence believes the public needs to trust the district’s board members.
“The public sees members of the WRD suing each other and being double-electeds,” said Gonzales-Lawrence. “Our community requires leaders who are thoughtful and committed to open government.”
Gonzales-Lawrence is particularly opposed to Albert Robles simultaneously being a district board member and Mayor of Carson, regardless of that being illegal or not. He said that all of an elected official’s loyalty should be to one constituency. He questioned Robles’ loyalty to the WRD.
“Robles has been all over the news promoting Carson, but after 24 years on the board, why not the WRD?” asked Gonzales-Lawrence rhetorically. “His choices are not fair to the people.”
Albert Robles is the treasurer for the Water Replenishment District. Beginning in 1992, Robles has been periodically elected to the board of directors for the district, making him the senior member.
Robles noted that when the district was created, it was the single largest purchaser of imported water in California.
“I was part of the [generation] which took the WRD to a new phase,” Robles said. “It will culminate in us declaring independence in 18 months from imported water. We just broke ground on a new water recycling facility in Pico Rivera. It is the most advanced in the world.”
The Water Replenishment District provides customers with the lowest water rates in Southern California. Robles said that he voted against increasing those rates more than any other board member.
The County of Los Angeles wants Robles to abdicate either his position on the water board or as mayor of Carson because his water board position includes making policies potentially affecting ground water in the city. The district attorney asserts it is illegal for him to hold an elected position in both Carson and the Water Replenishment District. A lawsuit over Robles’ conflicting duties and responsibilities is ongoing.
At the same time, Robles is suing the Water Reclamation District because it has not paid for Robles’ defense against Los Angeles County.
In 2015, Robles was sued for sexual assault by former Water Replenishment Board Director, Lynn Dymally. She detailed in her suit that Robles assaulted her while they were at a conference in Washington, D.C.
Katherman is the vice president of the Water Replenishment District and the chairman of the district’s Water Resources Committee. He has been in that seat for 11 years.
“I’m running … so I can finish the job of making our groundwater basin 100 percent independent from imported water—making our region the first drought-proof water basin in the state,” Katherman said.
He also has experience with water policy as the director for Region 8 of the Association of California Water Agencies and being a water commissioner for Torrance.
For more than 25 years, Katherman owned and worked at a firm that helped clients negotiate city planning and land use permits. He later worked for Los Angeles City Councilman Cullin Price on economic development.
In 2014, Katherman resigned from his position with Price’s office after he and his wife were charged by with embezzling funds from their non-profit, Adopt a Stormdrain Foundation. The foundation’s money is supposed to go to raising awareness of the need to keep storm drains and the hydrological system pollution free. But the Los Angeles District Attorney accused the Kathermans of allowing funds to end up covering a water board member’s personal expenses.
The water board member, Ron Smith, was convicted of embezzlement, but the Kathermans were acquitted. Cathy Beauregard, a witness for the prosecution and former board member of Katherman’s foundation, told the Los Angeles Times that she didn’t think the case arrived at the correct verdict.