Report criticizes behavior of Water Board’s Gary Kremen but says there was no sexual harassment

Gary Kremen represents Northern Santa Clara County on the Santa Clara Valley Water District board and is chair of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.

This story was first published in the print edition of the Daily Post on Oct. 26. If you want to read important local news stories first, pick up the Post in the mornings at 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Valley Water Director Gary Kremen of Palo Alto laid into employees in public, threatened their jobs, and overstepped his power as a board member, according to an attorney’s investigation that was released yesterday (Oct. 25).

In his favor, Kremen was acquitted of any sexual harassment involving Valley Water, and 16 of 21 allegations against him were unfounded by attorney Jenica Maldonado, outside counsel hired to provide an objective view of the allegations.

Kremen violated a board policy that prohibits abusive conduct, Maldonado said. For example, Kremen laid into an employee who led a virtual tour with federal government officials in spring 2021. Kremen wasn’t happy about how the tour went, so he called the employee incompetent, and said maybe someone else should do the employee’s job, Maldonado said. The interaction allegedly brought the employee to tears and was reported to CEO Rick Callendar, who admonished Kremen for his conduct, Maldonado said.

Kremen apologized

Several weeks later, the employee confronted Kremen, and he profusely apologized in response, Maldonado said.

“It appears more likely than not that Kremen made a personal charge and verbal assault on the employee’s character,” Maldonado said.

Kremen told Maldonado that he did not recall any of the events.

The Valley Water board hired Maldonado in March after a former Kremen campaign worker came across a picture of Kremen’s girlfriend, who was breastfeeding.

The employee was working on Kremen’s campaign to be Santa Clara County Assessor, and Kremen asked her to look through his files when she came across the partially nude pictures, Kremen said.

After the allegations came out, Kremen dropped out of the race for Assessor and stepped down as chair of the Valley Water board.

Maldonado looked at Kremen’s actions relating to Valley Water only, so the photo was not part of the report.

On the November ballot

Kremen, who is in the middle of a campaign for re-election against Palo Alto lawyer Rebecca Eisenberg, didn’t say anything during yesterday’s meeting. In a written statement afterwards, he thanked Maldonado for clearing his name of sexual harassment.

“The vast majority of the complaints by a few employees and political opponents were not sustained and were found to be false by the investigator,” he said.

Kremen said it’s his duty to insist that the board’s direction is followed.

“In a few instances, my defense of taxpayers, ratepayers and constituents was too ardent and I apologize,” he said. “To that end, I appreciate any constructive criticism I can take from this report to be a better advocate.”

Over the course of seven months, Maldonado interviewed more than 50 people. The witnesses were not named in the report, except for Kremen, Callender, Assistant Chief Executive Officer Melanie Richardson and members of the Sierra Club, who alleged that Kremen disrespected them when they commented at public board meetings.
In June 2021, Kremen criticized an employee for a lack of progress on a project that the board had voted on. He asked Callendar to look at reorganizing the project, and his tone was “angry, exasperated and aggressive,” Maldonado said. He raised his voice and interrupted the employee several times, Maldonado said.

CEO admonished Kremen

In their interviews, Callendar said he admonished Kremen for his conduct.

Maldonado said that Kremen was trying to direct a personnel action, which a board member doesn’t have the authority to do. The board votes on directions to Callendar, and Callendar is the boss of the rest of the employees.

At another meeting the same month, Kremen was irritated because a manager didn’t incorporate changes to a presentation that Kremen had suggested. Kremen said the changes were left out on purpose, and the manager was defying him, Maldonado said.

Kremen said he would speak with Callendar about pulling employees from the project if they didn’t listen. The manager and other witnesses took the comment as a direct attack, and the manager was left in tears, Maldonado said.

Kremen told Maldonado that he didn’t recall the meeting.

Other cases follow a similar pattern, with Kremen getting upset at employees and making comments about removing them from a job and firing them.

Gesture draws complaint

One employee complained that Kremen gestured toward him or her in a “potentially threatening manner” during a board meeting before the pandemic. Kremen pointed his index and middle finger toward his eyes and then toward the employee, suggesting “I’m watching you,” Maldonado said.

Kremen couldn’t remember making the gesture, and there was no video of the incident. Maldonado said Kremen didn’t violate board policy because he could have been making the gesture playfully or in jest.

Some allegations of bullying from employees were unfounded because video footage didn’t back up what they claimed. Other allegations didn’t have enough evidence.

Sierra Club accused Kremen

Allegations of abuse from the Sierra Club were unfounded. Kremen’s statements to their members “may have been rude, counterproductive, unprofessional, and inconsistent with (Valley Water policy),” but they weren’t extremely offensive or an assault on anyone’s character, Maldonado said.

Kremen said the Sierra Club is “well known for its … white privilege position.”

He accused the organization of hurting disadvantaged people by opposing projects that would lower their rates. Members can afford to pay for higher water rates, so they don’t care if water is more expensive for others, he said.

“It’s shameful to me this lack of social justice and putting plants over people,” Kremen said during a meeting on June 23, 2020.

The Valley Water Ethics Committee, which is made up of three of seven board members, will review Maldonado’s report and make a recommendation to the full board.

Valley Water’s Carlos Orellana said Kremen violated no laws, and the district wouldn’t be liable for creating a hostile workplace. Director Linda LeZotte asked for a confidential memo explaining his reasoning.