Rick Callender will succeed Norma Camacho as CEO of Valley Water.
After a quarter-century ascending the ranks, the agency’s chief of external affairs will assume the top job on July 11. The veteran water official will make $326,352 a year in his new role, in which he’ll oversee a district tasked with providing water and flood protection to the Santa Clara Valley.
As CEO, Callender will oversee an agency with an annual budget of more than $600 million, as well as major capital projects, including Anderson Dam’s seismic overhaul and the $1.3 billion expansion of Pacheco Reservoir in conjunction with the San Benito County and the Pacheco Pass water districts.
Callender comes to the position with decades of experience in local politics and public service. The South Bay native served as president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP from 2000 to 2008, resigning to focus on law school. In 2012, he was appointed as the second vice president of the California-Hawaii State Conference of the NAACP.
The Valley Water veteran’s promotion Tuesday by the Board of Directors followed a public comment period in which a dozen or so allies lauded his leadership.
“He’s been part of the creek cleans ups, and he’s been there for us during the floods,” San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP President Rev. Jethroe Moore said. “When we had problems and concerns, we took it to Rick and Rick answered his community, and the community has great respect for him much like we have for Norma … We’re so glad to see you’re moving in a way that sponsors the diversity that we’re always talking about.”
Valley Water conducted a nationwide search for Camacho’s replacement using the Los Gatos-based recruiters William Avery & Associates. The firm winnowed it down to 56 applicants, nine interviewees and four finalists, according to Director Tony Estremera.
However, Callender’s hire exposed a rift on the district’s seven-member board, with Tuesday’s 4-3 vote split along gender lines. Estremera, Gary Kremen, John Varela and Dick Santos cast the affirming votes, while all three women—board President Nai Hsueh and colleagues Linda LeZotte and Barbara Keegan—fell on the opposing side.
“I have to vote my conscience,” Keegan said, without elaborating. “I vote no.”
The other two women were similarly circumspect from the dais.
But sources who spoke to the trio ahead of the vote say their reasons involved a preference for a less political CEO with more public works-project management expertise—as well as allegations of harassment, which the executive disputes.
Though none of that was articulated on Tuesday, a scathing letter the next morning shed light on how Callender’s allies perceived the opposition.
The email fired off at 8:28am today. It appeared to make good on a warning from Rev. Moore, who mentioned at the public hearing a day prior something about how board members resisting Callender’s promotion would be held accountable for their votes.
In his barbed missive, the NAACP president compared Keegan and LeZotte to Amy Cooper, the white woman who went viral as the latest embodiment of the “Karen” meme by calling 9-1-1 on an African-American birdwatcher in Central Park. “I am disappointed to have to write this letter,” Moore began. “However it appears that we have a clear case of ‘managing while black’ occurring right here in Silicon Valley.”
The reverend called on Valley Water to investigate “likely unethical and likely illegal behaviors” of Keegan and LeZotte (notably, not Hsueh), whom he accused of “releasing incomplete confidential personnel information to members of the public and media, and lobbying external people during the course of a confidential hiring process.”
“White women’s fear turning into black men being attacked is nothing new,” Moore continued. “Simply look at what's in the news right now. We live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are targets and able to have their rights attacked.”
The NAACP leader invoked the name of George Floyd—an unarmed black man killed by two Minneapolis police officers—and “the larger national dialogue on racism” as sharing a common thread with the votes against Callender’s promotion.
Moore accused Keegan and LeZotte (again, no mention of Hsueh) of conspiring with a former Valley Water director, Joe Judge, to sabotage Callender’s shot at the CEO job.
Keegan and LeZotte declined to comment on the letter.
Kremen, for his part, echoed Moore’s argument about the opposition being all about race. In a phone call today, Kremen touted how he “voted with three men of color” for Callender’s appointment, referring to Estremera, Varela and Santos. “The people who voted against him were the same people who didn’t support Norma Camacho, our Asian Latinx former CEO, who did an awesome job,” he added about his female colleagues.
In actuality, Camacho was named interim CEO in March 2016 after the firing of Beau Goldie and promoted to CEO in August 2017 through unanimous votes by the board, of which Keegan, LeZotte and Hsueh were members at the time.
In a text message Tuesday, Callender said that as much as he would like to clear the air surrounding past litigation, he can’t because he’s muzzled by a secrecy pact with Valley Water that prevents him from saying anything about “the period of 2005 to 2013, which includes a confidentiality clause.”
That eight-year span involves a different case than the one that the women on the board reportedly have concerns about. While Moore’s letter cites the Judge case, in which the ex-director was accused of racially discriminating against Callender, it makes no mention of a lawsuit filed by Jessica Collins.
Though Collins wound up dropping her claims against Callender in 2010, the allegations are a matter of public record.
The case dates back to 2009, when the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) granted her the right to sue Callender for sexual harassment, assault, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In her lawsuit, Collins said that from September 2007 to February 2008, Callender subjected her to unwanted advances and comments. The come-ons allegedly escalated in fall 2007 when the pair attended a conference in Chico, where Collins said “Callender kept insisting on buying drinks and hanging out,” and tried to kiss her.
After that incident, per the complaint, Collins recounted how “Callender would be very nice to her for a period of time, paying her compliments both personally and professionally, building up to a point when he would make an advance, whether it be through inviting her to Napa or texting her to have drinks.”
After rejecting his overtures, Collins said Callender’s demeanor turned “hostile.”
In February 2008, Collins reportedly filed an internal complaint with the district’s equal employment opportunity unit. After a three-month investigation, in which more than 20 people were interviewed, investigators recommended Callender’s termination, according to Collins’ legal complaint. The decision was ultimately left up to then-Valley Water CEO Olga Steele, who opted against firing him.
Collins still works for the district and has declined previous requests for comment. Callender said he remains silent about the case because of a nondisclosure agreement.
When asked for a copy of said document, the water district released an eight-page agreement that references Judge but not the Collins case. According to the agreement, Callender filed a discrimination complaint in 2011 against Judge and the district, which the DFEH closed, re-opened and then re-closed over the ensuing year. Valley Water board minutes show that the DFEH complaint Callender filed against Judge, at least, ended “with no relevant findings” against the former District 2 director.
The NDA goes on to describe how the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a concurrent claim against Judge and the district, which led Callender to ask for an 11-point settlement June 2012. Months later, in December that same year, he filed a new complaint accusing the district of discrimination based on age, race and sex as well as harassment and retaliation.
Per the secrecy agreement, the conflict ended with a no-fault settlement in which Callender was paid $27,500 as compensation for “alleged emotional distress.” He also received a promotion from unclassified manager to deputy administrative officer—but no attendant bump-up in pay or benefits.
Moore said he worked closely with Callender during the time of the Judge and Collins complaints and chalked up the allegations against him as motivated by discriminatory associations between black men and “criminality and hypersexuality.”
In a phone call today, Moore told San Jose Inside that he doesn’t believe Collins. He dismissed her sexual harassment complaint as being part of a “witch hunt” led by Judge to oust Callender all those years ago. “They try to find something on him to bring him down or try to get rid of him,” Moore said. “They’ve been trying to get rid of him for years on fraudulent information.”
Moore said calls by LeZotte and Keegan to have Callender undergo a criminal and civil background check—his 1998 conviction from a parking lot altercation was publicly reported—fall into a longstanding pattern of racially charged harassment.
“That has never been done with any other internal candidates,” the NAACP leader wrote in his open letter, “including with the current CEO ... Does it sound to you like a different standard has been applied to Mr. Callender?”