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L.A. council president threatens to sever ties to water agency under fire over sexual harassment allegations

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The president of the Los Angeles City Council has threatened to sever the city’s relationship with the agency that supplies much of the city’s water over allegations that women working for the organization faced systemic sexual harassment.

Council President Nury Martinez this week asked for city officials to report back within 10 days on the city’s relationship with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California after a Times article detailed a pattern of accusations from women saying they were sexually harassed.

Several women in the apprentice program have said that district officials ignored or dismissed their complaints, didn’t investigate them thoroughly and pressured them to continue working around men they accused or seek other positions with lower pay.

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The MWD has commissioned an outside firm to review the allegations and its workplace culture.

“The city must reevaluate its relationship with MWD if these charges are not fully addressed by the agency,” Martinez wrote in her request.

Martinez also asked the L.A. Department of Water and Power to look into whether city ratepayers are on the hook for the district’s legal liabilities, whether city officials were previously made aware of the complaints and “if so, why nothing was done to address it,” according to her request.

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MWD board Chairwoman Gloria Gray responded in a letter Friday to Martinez that she was “deeply disappointed and concerned” that Martinez was “taking this action” before reaching out to Gray or the district’s general manager for a better understanding of the issues raised in The Times’ article.

Gray wrote that employees are required to undergo sexual harassment training and encouraged to make complaints and that managers are required to report the complaints, which are investigated and could lead to “disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.” She also said that an independent investigation was underway, approved unanimously by the board of directors after women began telling their stories at board meetings.

“I assure you that Metropolitan takes these complaints very seriously,” Gray wrote.

The city’s ability to withdraw from the water district remains unclear. The agency, which delivers water to the region from the State Water Project and Colorado River Aqueduct, has been a major source of water for the city, especially in drought years when local sources run short.

As of 2019, the MWD delivered about 49% of the city’s total water supply, according to figures from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The Los Angeles Aqueduct and local groundwater are the other main sources of supply. The city of Los Angeles is one of 26 member agencies that make up the Metropolitan Water District and has several of the district’s 38 board seats.

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Martinez said in an interview that although it could be complicated to withdraw from the MWD, it should be considered seriously to hold the district accountable.

“It doesn’t matter the size of MWD, and the complexities of water rights or L.A.’s water needs; those cannot be the reasons we avoid difficult discussions about women in the workplace,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, the union that represents water district workers announced that it had lost confidence in the independent investigation commissioned by the agency’s board of directors, calling instead for an audit by the state Legislature. A statement released by the union this week indicated that there was pressure to expedite the outside investigation.

“We have significant reason to believe that this process will be rushed to completion, and will not be the full, comprehensive review into these matters that was promised and is so desperately needed,” said Alan Shanahan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1902.

In a statement to The Times, Gray said the outside review “cannot be rushed, nor will it be buried.”

“It is a priority for directors and management to ensure the proper and fair treatment of each of our employees,” Gray wrote. “We must respect it through completion to ensure the review is done properly and thoroughly.”

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