An Inland water district board could censure one of its own for an alleged pattern of disrespectful behavior towards staff and the public that its lawyer warned could spur a lawsuit.
Gracie Torres, who is Latina, said she sees “racial undertones” behind the proposed censure, which could be voted on at the Western Municipal Water District board meeting Wednesday, Dec. 21. Torres argued the censure attempt is retaliation for her holding the district accountable and none of the behavior or comments she’s accused of are censure worthy.
In a Monday, Dec. 12, interview, Torres also accused board President Brenda Dennstedt of harassing her.
Dennstedt said via email that the possible censure “has nothing to do with me personally. It is a response to a documented history of disrespectful and demeaning conduct by Director Torres toward district staff that is not only unprofessional and violates district policy but potentially exposes the District to significant liability.”
“Taking this step toward considering a censure is necessary to protect staff and ensure Western Municipal Water District remains a place where employees feel valued and respected,” Dennstedt added.
Some members of the public said at the board’s Dec. 7 meeting that they see racism behind the censure push.
Nothing in the censure resolution “seems serious enough to take this sort of drastic measure,” Lisa Andres said that day. “And anyone reading this from the outside could perceive it as harassment or even worse, racism.”
Addressing board member Laura Roughton, Frank Montes said: “You, Laura, in the last meeting said perception is reality. Well, the perception is that this is retaliation and racist.”
Later in the meeting, Roughton, a former Jurupa Valley mayor, said the proposed censure “is not random and it’s not racist. (We’re not) trying to censure Ms. Torres because of any dislike for her or something like that … it’s because of this pattern of behavior.”
Tracy Davis, who spoke Dec. 7 about the censure, said: “I’m disappointed that it’s gone this far and that race has become an issue in this because I don’t see a race issue.”
Based in Riverside, Western provides water to almost 1 million people in a 527-square-mile area from Corona to Temecula. It serves 25,000 customers in Riverside and Perris as well as March Air Reserve Base and the unincorporated communities of El Sobrante, Lake Mathews and Mead Valley.
The district is governed by a five-member board that serves four-year terms. Torres, first elected in 2018, won 58% of the vote in November in beating four opponents to win re-election to the Division 2 seat, which represents March and parts of Riverside as well as Lake Mathews.
It’s rare for a local elected body to issue a censure. Torres’ proposed censure is the first before Western’s board since it revised its ethics policy in 2019, according to Western General Manager Craig Miller.
A censure would express the board’s disapproval of Torres’ actions, and the board could punish Torres by taking away her committee assignments or revoking her official travel privileges, according to a memo from the board’s general counsel, Jeff Ballinger.
Dennstedt asked the board to consider the censure, the memo states.
The censure resolution reprimands Torres for violating the district’s ethics policies, which require board members to maintain high standards of personal honesty and fairness and to not harass or discriminate against anyone when performing their official duties.
Ballinger’s memo outlines alleged incidents to justify a censure. According to the memo, Torres told Miller, the district’s general manager, “thanks for mansplaining to me” during a February 2021 board meeting.
Torres said she didn’t recall saying that, but “it’s not the first time I’ve asked our general manager not to be condescending.”
In an emailed statement, Miller said he strives “to demonstrate professionalism and respect (to the board) at all times” and noted that, after discussing his performance, the board extended his contract in August.
During a November 2021 closed session discussion about the general counsel’s performance, “Torres became belligerent, stormed out of closed session and slammed the door,” Ballinger’s memo states.
“I did walk out of that meeting,” Torres said. “I wouldn’t call it belligerent, but I did walk out of the meeting, based on what we were discussing, which in my mind was incredibly unfair.”
On Oct. 5 of this year, Torres “publicly criticized staff and legal counsel’s job performance during the board meeting (and called) attention to grammar errors, misspellings and scrutinized the work performed by the reviewer of the work repeatedly,” Ballinger’s memo states. “These comments adversely impacted staff.”
Torres said the Oct. 5 meeting was not properly advertised and violated California’s Brown Act, which sets transparency rules for elected officials’ meetings.
“Rather than being more concerned about (violating) the Brown Act, they’re concerned about me calling out in public my concerns about the Brown Act, which I think essentially is retaliation for me doing so,” she said.
Miller said the district’s legal team “confirmed multiple times” that the Oct. 5 meeting was properly noticed under the Brown Act.
During the board’s Nov. 2, meeting, Torres “made gender-based comments about two members of the public (who spoke), saying it was a very common occurrence for women (to be told) they can’t possibly be as qualified as they say they are, and it’s disheartening that it happens to come from two men,” Ballinger’s memo alleged.
“At no time did the members of the public during their comments make any reference to Director Torres’ gender.”
Torres said that, during election season, two speakers asked for her qualifications.
“And I went through my qualifications and I did mention that in general, this happens to women where we’re not believed when we’re water chemists or we’re professors,” she said. “And it is also true that they happen to be two men that said it.”
Dennstedt, Torres added, made a similar comment in October about the female chair of the Metropolitan Water District of California not getting a third term.
Four of Western’s five board members are women. Board member Fauzia Rizvi is Pakistani Muslim immigrant and Dennstedt, during an October 2021 board meeting, said her grandmother was from Columbia and her grandfather came from the Philippines.
In a Nov. 2 letter to Torres, Ballinger wrote that her conduct on Oct. 5 “could potentially give rise to liability for the District and yourself based on state and federal employment laws.”
Ballinger added that, if Torres continues to violate board policy, it is “quite likely” Western would not have to cover Torres’ legal expenses or punitive damages in a lawsuit stemming from her policy breaches.
About a dozen people spoke in support of Torres at the Dec. 7 meeting.
“It seems to be minor things,” Corinne Parker said. “I don’t understand why you are all spending so much time doing this, and it appears that you’re all picking on one board member.”
Speakers described Torres as a dedicated public servant who looks out for constituents. Censuring her would effectively silence the community’s voice, Alan Shanahan told the board.
Former Inland Assemblymember Jose Medina also defended Torres.
“In this board, you may be used to having a very homogeneous group of individuals serving together representing the community,” he said. “But I would state that it is great for democracy … that we have a change or differences of opinions.”
A handful of speakers criticized Torres.
“No one, regardless of race or sex, should behave unprofessionally toward colleagues and in any setting,” Barbara Ankele said. “They should not be behaving unprofessionally toward staff and they should not be behaving unprofessionally toward the public.”
Torres said she feels “like there are racial undertones” behind the censure effort.
Board member Mike Gardner “said that it’s not what I say, it’s how I say it, which is a very common microaggression towards people of color,” Torres said. “‘Hey, we just want to tone-police you. We want to make sure you say things properly or in a way that we’re OK with.’”
On Wednesday, Gardner, a former Riverside city councilmember, said: “That’s a false allegation or an unnecessary worry. It really has nothing to do with who is exhibiting the behavior or their gender or ethnicity or anything.”
Any board member who acted like Torres would be subject to censure, Gardner added.
Torres said that, if she is censured, “I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get there. Right now, my focus is to make sure that I’m not further humiliated than I’ve been in the past.”
Torres said she wants a good working relationship with colleagues.
“(But) I won’t stop asking the questions that the public wants me to ask,” she said. “I won’t (stop bringing) to light things that I find are concerning, regardless of how wonderful Western is when it comes to the service of water.”