A summary investigative report into the alleged misconduct of Santa Clara Valley Water District Director Gary Kremen absolved him of sexual harassment but did find evidence of bullying.
Kremen, an incumbent who is running for reelection on Nov. 8, was accused of sexual harassment by a former campaign staffer during his campaign for county assessor and dropped out of that race in February. Kremen has said he accidentally left a few photographs of himself and his partner in bed while she was breastfeeding in a large Dropbox cache of campaign photos, which the staffer viewed.
In March, he temporarily stepped back as the water board's chair and requested an independent investigation of the allegations by the Board Ethics and Conduct Ad Hoc Committee.
Sierra Club members also accused Kremen in a letter of "disrespectful treatment toward environmental advocates," allegations that became part of the query.
The committee retained attorney Jenica Maldonado of the Renne Public Law Group to conduct the investigation. She was tasked with looking into whether Kremen violated any Valley Water policies regarding sexual harassment and treatment of members of the public at meetings.
The ethics committee also received multiple written complaints concerning Kremen from district employees. Two of those accused him of using his power as a board member inappropriately. None of the complaints accused Kremen of sexual harassment, the ethics committee executive summary noted. The report was presented to the full board on Oct. 24.
Investigators interviewed 50 witnesses between May and October, including Chief Executive Officer Rick Callender, Assistant Chief Executive Officer Melanie Richardson, employees, members of the public and Kremen. The investigation also reviewed video and audio footage from district board and subcommittee meetings, plus agendas, minutes and board packets and other communications.
The investigation confirmed seven out of 21 allegations, in whole or part, relating to abuses of district employees that violated Valley Water's Board Governance Policies that included prohibitory language.
As examples, witnesses alleged that Kremen bullied a manager in the Raw Water Division during a nonpublic Zoom meeting in June 2021. Kremen allegedly expressed irritation that the materials presented to the board hadn't included changes he had earlier suggested. He stated he thought the omissions were willful and implied that the manager had been insubordinate or was defying him.
Kremen also allegedly stated that he intended to speak with Executive Officer Callender about pulling staff off projects if they wouldn't listen to him. Witnesses and the manager perceived it as a direct attack on the manager, who was allegedly brought to tears.
The investigation determined that Kremen had engaged in abusive behavior toward the manager in the presence of coworkers and made a personal and abusive charge against the character of the manager.
In another incident, witnesses said Kremen bullied a member of the External Affairs Division in spring 2020. Following a virtual "tour" with government representatives located in Washington, D.C., Kremen contacted the employee and allegedly laid into the employee because he was unhappy about the tour. He allegedly called them incompetent and told them that if they could not perform the job competently, then maybe someone else should.
The interaction allegedly brought the employee to tears and it was reported to Callender, who reportedly admonished Kremen for his conduct. The employee confronted Kremen regarding the incident several weeks later, and Kremen apologized profusely, the report found.
A member of the Financial Planning and Management Division alleged that he had several private conversations with Kremen about accounting requirements for the district's financial statements. During one of those conversations in July 2020, Kremen allegedly informed the employee that he wanted the District's Annual Comprehensive Financial Report (ACFR) to present financial statements "the way they're presented in a private company's financial report" and told the employee, "Don't tell me government GAAP is the reason why you can't do that because I don't give a f---."
"Callender recalled discussing Kremen's use of profanity with the employee but did not recall the context. Callender generally recalled, however, that Kremen had previously made comments reflecting a lack of understanding with respect to private versus public financial reporting mechanisms," the report found.
"Kremen denied proposing to the employee that the district use alternative accounting standards," the reported stated. "Kremen denied making the specific statement recalled by the witness or using profanity generally."
Investigators sustained that Kremen had violated board policy with respect to inappropriate treatment of staff and had "more likely than not" used profanity in a hostile manner towards the employee, which investigators deem to constitute abusive conduct.
The investigation did not find instances of abuse by Kremen toward the public as alleged by the Sierra Club complaints. In one instance, Kremen referred to the Sierra Club as being "well known for its ... white privilege position." While the Sierra Club said the comment was "really disrespectful" and "kind of racist."
Kremen made the statement after the public comment period of the meeting ended and did not specifically target any individual Sierra Club members.
"Kremen stated that he feels his perspective on the Sierra Club is grounded in historical fact and that he did not intend to disrespect Dawson or other people of color associated with the Sierra Club," the report stated, referring to Brandon Dawson, the director of Sierra Club California.
The report said that investigators were "troubled" by the use of racially charged language, but they did not find it abusive.
"Investigators acknowledge that Kremen's statements may have been rude, counterproductive, unprofessional and inconsistent with GP-7, the District's Values Statement, or GP-11, the Inclusion, Equal Employment Opportunity, Discrimination/Harassment Prevention, and Diversity policy.
"Nevertheless, Kremen's comments about the Sierra Club were not aimed at any particular Sierra Club members but at the organization as a whole" and weren't abusive nor an attack on character or motives, the investigation found.
In a text message response, Kremen thanked the investigative team "for completely clearing my name of any and all innuendo of sexual harassment."
"As some might recall, I requested this independent investigation and voted for such. I have always championed women's rights and civil rights and my private conduct matches my public commitment," he wrote.
He noted that "the vast majority of the complaints by a few employees and political opponents were not sustained and were found to be false by the investigators. I thank the independent investigators for their fairness and completeness, including interviewing over 50 people," he said.
"Water District employees and staff are among the best public servants around. They work hard and they get results. I have nothing but the highest respect for their diligence and effort. To any degree I have not conveyed this admiration, I will do better in the future.
"As a fighter for the interests of Palo Alto's taxpayers and water ratepayers, it is within my duties to not only question whether the mission, policies and procedures of the district are being fulfilled but to insist that the direction of the board be followed.
"In a few instances, my defense of taxpayers, ratepayers and constituents was too ardent, and I apologize. To that end, I appreciate any constructive criticism I can take from this report to be a better advocate," he said.