Setting the Record Straight: WVWD Letter to SCNG Editors Over Misreported 1/15/20 Story

 

The following is a letter from the West Valley Water District sent to Southern California News Group editors:

 

The article written by Southern California News Group (SCNG) reporters Joe Nelson and Scott Schwebke titled, “Workers say 10 employees hired by Rialto water district manager were unqualified, especially this one” and published on January 15, 2020 was not only a violation of multiple employees’ rights to privacy granted by the State of California, but also included many misleading, inaccurate and unsubstantiated statements. We write to you, the management of SCNG, because this article represents a pattern of unfair and unethical practices from reporters Nelson and Schwebke.

 

We respect the value of local news reporting and believe honest, independent media outlets like SCNG form the bedrock of America’s free and open civil society. The intention of this letter is not to confront SCNG, but to protect its well-earned reputation as a reliable source of news. It is with this humble and respectful intent that we request both a copy of your publication’s fairness standards, that the article be removed from SCNG’s websites, that SCNG issue a full retraction, and that both reporters be reassigned, as these reporters have shown that they cannot fairly cover the West Valley Water District (WVWD).

 

As an organization, we fully acknowledge missteps under the prior Board of Directors and continue to make great strides forward to improve our transparency and quality of service. Our new leadership is committed to fulfilling its ethical responsibilities, and we understand that reporters of SCNG are also bound to their own code of ethics. To that end, we have outlined several of the issues we’ve recorded in Nelson and Schwebke’s January 15 article, and will continue to respond to issues with future articles until the two aforementioned reporters are removed or reassigned.

 

  1. Utilizing inaccurate, unsubstantiated information.

 

Throughout the article, Nelson and Schwebke cite inaccurate, unsubstantiated information from a December 9, 2019 unsupported letter (included in attachment A) sent to Mr. Don Griggs, president of the West Valley Water District Ratepayers Association, and Mr. Butch Araiza, former WVWD general manger. The WVWD provided Nelson with a full, verifiable refutation of the unsupported letter’s claims in an email sent on January 8, 2020 at 2:57 p.m. (included in attachment B) that Nelson and Schwebke either ignored or chose to omit. Included in the refutation were a list of the district’s hiring practices, which are detailed in the board-approved West Valley Water District Human Resources Policy and Practice Manual, which Nelson and Schwebke failed to report. It is also curious that the text of the December 9 letter was never published—likely because its rampant misspellings and rambling, unsubstantiated claims would have severely undermined the author’s credibility.In paragraph 3, the Nelson and Schwebke reference the unsupported letter and its author, and write “‘For some time now and especially after the hiring of Clarence Mansell, the opportunities for employees who have been with the department for years have diminished,’ according to the letter, whose author asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. ‘Positions have been created, job descriptions have been modified and interviews have been forgone or faked in order to bring in acquaintances of Clarence Mansell or at the request of Mike Taylor who either have little or no experience in the water industry.” Information regarding each of the listed employees’ qualifications disproving this assessment by the author of the unsupported letter was also provided to Nelson on January 8, 2020 at 2:57 p.m. (in attachment B).

 

-In paragraph 5, the Nelson and Schwebke quote the unsupported letter, stating employees hired are a liability to WVWD due to their lack of experience.

 

-In paragraph 8, Nelson and Schwebke use the unsupported letter to produce a leading statement from board member Greg Young.

 

-In paragraph 27, Nelson and Schwebke quote the unsupported letter, stating that Bostan had lost invoices, received a negative review from his supervisor, was promoted without having any of the requisite experience, and is a “great liability.”

 

-In paragraph 28, Nelson and Schwebke write a leading statement: “In a telephone interview, Araiza said he remains perplexed as to why Mansell has brought aboard friends and associates with spotty employment histories as water district employees.”

 

  1. Unethical handling of employee information.

 

In paragraph 27, Nelson and Schwebke write “(Bostan) has lost several invoices and was given a bad review by his supervisor.” An employee performance review is highly confidential, which means that an employee’s performance review was either illegally obtained, or the statement is not based on substantiated truth. The constitution of California guarantees all residents of California the “right of privacy”—by referencing an employee’s confidential performance review, Nelson and Schwebke are in direct violation of the California constitution. Even if the performance review was not stolen, the information regarding the nature of a private person’s performance review was and is confidential. There certainly is a possibility that past management had been involved in unethical practices that may have resulted in the hiring of less qualified individuals. However, the burden of ethical responsibility lies with those who manage hiring, not the employees themselves. Given that this claim remains unsubstantiated, it does not seem fair to ruin the life of a single employee—a private citizen—when there are public figures who shoulder the ultimate responsibility for hiring and promoting employees. The publicly elected board may be a fair target for reporters, but we will not tolerate unjust attacks on our employees, whose privacy we are bound to protect. It should be noted that the practice of publishing private and confidential employment information without the consent of the employee is also a violation under the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.

 

  1. Omitting critical information and facts.

 

WVWD provided Nelson and Schwebke with background information regarding District hiring practices and promotion procedures per the board-approved West Valley Water District Human Resources Policy and Practices Manual, as well as detailed, verifiable information refuting the false claims in the December 9 unsupported letter to Mr. Araiza and Mr. Griggs (This information is included in attachment B). These hiring procedures, positions, dates and other facts were ignored. Instead, Nelson and Schwebke chose to paraphrase the December 9 unsupported letter in a bulleted format. As a result of this omission of information, Nelson and Schwebke offer a very misleading account of WVWD hiring practices.

 

-In paragraph five, Nelson and Schwebke paraphrase the unsupported letter, writing that “These employees are in many cases a liability to the district due to their lack of experience or knowledge and placed in positions that require certifications and/or degrees, or hands-on experience in order to maintain a functional water department.” “These employees” refers to Gabriel Bostan, Nadia Loukeh, Melissa Blount, Lizett Santoro, Clifford Ray, Janet Harmon, Cynthia Birts, Richard Lawson, Paul Andrews and Robert Teeter, all of whom are current employees of WVWD, without making note of their qualifications, current certifications, education and years of experience.

 

-In paragraph 10, Nelson and Schwebke write, “Bostan, a 64-year-old Romanian immigrant, stands out as one of Mansell’s most controversial hires according to district employees. Educated as an engineer, he came to the U.S. in 1986 and was hired by the city of Corona as a wastewater treatment plant operations supervisor in 1999. Less than a year later, he was fired after a slew of reprimands for misconduct.” It’s curious that Nelson and Schwebke manage to describe disciplinary actions taken against Mr. Bostan more than 20 years ago, while also failing to list any of his qualifications; Nelson and Schwebke do not mention that Bostan maintains an engineering degree from The Oil and Gas Institute of Romania, a master’s degree in petroleum engineering from the International Evaluation Center of Romania and certifications from the California State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) and American Water Works Association. Mr. Bostan is a certified Grade Level V Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator, which is the highest grade level that can be obtained by the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). He also has been certified as a Treatment Plant Operator Grade II and Distribution Operator Grade II with the SWRCB. He is also a Water Quality Laboratory Analyst certified by the American Water Works Association.

 

-In paragraph 35, Nelson and Schwebke list “several other troubling hires by Mansell” and refer to employees who are currently employed with WVWD. The WVWD provided Nelson and Schwebke with detailed information regarding each of these hires. However, no reference was made to the hiring dates and positions provided to Mr. Nelson on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 2:57 p.m. (attachment B) Nelson and Schwebke’s use of a falsehood-ridden, unsupported letter to target private citizens who have committed no crime other than accepting a job for which they were qualified is not only unfair but highly unethical. For example:

 

i. Richard Lawson, listed in the unsupported letter as “Ritchie (last name unknown)” was hired 11/26/2019 is an engineering technician with over 15 years’ experience as an inspector. Mr. Lawson earned an associate’s degree in electrical theory and labor from Empire State College and an associate’s degree in inspection technology from San Bernardino Valley College.  Mr. Lawson also maintains his status as a union member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He has earned a certification as a journeyman-level electrician with the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJACT). He is also a certified International Code Council (ICC) building inspector licensed PC832 and has maintained his California certification as a treatment operator grade I and distribution operator grade II.

 

ii. The unsupported letter states Cynthia Birts was “hired 3 months ago” and “when she was hired into customer service she had no experience.” This information is false. Cynthia Birts was hired by West Valley Water District December 17, 2018 as customer service representative I. She has over 15 years’ experience in customer service as a supervisor and trainer. She is a certified water efficiency practitioner and holds a certification as a qualified water efficient landscaper. She has earned and maintained her California state certifications as treatment operator grade I and distribution operator grade II with the State Water Recourses Control Board.

 

iii. The above details information for only two employees, but each of the employees listed in the unsupported letter maintain proper licenses, qualifications and experience.

 

-In paragraph 43, Nelson and Schwebke write “Additionally, an audit commissioned by the water district and conducted by The PUN Group of Santa Ana found an excessive pay raise for a customer service representative hired in August 2018 at $31.92 an hour. Three months later, the employee was promoted to water resources manager at $45.16 an hour, representing a spike of 41 percent.” Nelson and Schwebke seem to not understand  that Loukeh moved from a customer service representative (or customer service III) to a management position (water resources manager) within the organization, which entails a significant increase in responsibilities. The article fails to provide reasons behind the move, namely that she was previously a lead customer service representative for a municipality, and that Loukeh holds both a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis in finance and a master’s degree in public administration. Nelson and Schwebke also glaringly fail to mention she is a certified water efficiency practitioner who has taken several classes in water resources and treatment technology.

 

-In paragraph 43, the statement about The PUN Group is incomplete and misleading. The PUN Group was assigned as an outside third-party group by the WVWD Board of Directors and general manager to find areas of opportunity for WVWD to improve upon. The WVWD Board of Directors self-commissioned the audit to enable the management team to work in a more efficient and effective manner. The purpose of this report was to initiate testing of internal control and compliance methods and was conducted in accordance with government auditing standards. The results of that testing were not to provide an opinion on the effectiveness of prior internal control on compliance. Accordingly, the communication provided by the PUN Group to our Board of Directors and General Manager is not suitable for any other purpose. Most importantly, it was determined that the new pay rate for the internally-promoted employee falls within the range prescribed by the Board-approved Human Resources Policy and Practices Manual.

 

  1. Factual errors and false statements.

 

This article, purportedly published to inform the public of apparent WVWD misdeeds cited in the unsupported letter sent to Griggs and Araiza, contains several factual errors and misstatements. The following incorrect instances reflect a consistent pattern of unethical errors from reporters Nelson and Schwebke.

 

-In paragraph 22, Nelson and Schwebke write “Mansell did not respond to questions regarding his relationship with Bostan or his decision to hire him at the West Valley Water District.” The WVWD and Mansell did respond to questions with a quote and background information in an email to Nelson on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 2:57 p.m. (The email is included in attachment B.)

 

-In paragraph 33, Nelson and Schwebke write “During a special board meeting Thursday, Bostan was asked if he wanted to comment for this article. But when escorted outside to talk, the meeting was abruptly halted. Mansell followed Bostan and a reporter outside and ordered Bostan not to talk, saying it was against district policy.” The board meeting was not abruptly halted. After nearly 2 hours, Director Dr. Michael Taylor left the dais, and a restroom break was offered for exhausted board members and attendees. For reference, please see the January 9, 2020 board meeting at 01:40:55 on Facebook or YouTube.

 

-In paragraph 40, Nelson and Schwebke write “other questionable hires and employee promotions are well documented, including the district’s controversial August 2019 appointment of Shamindra “Rickey” Manbahal as chief financial officer without conducting a background check or issuing a contract.” Per the WVWD human resources manual and confirmed in the email from Nelson, all employees must receive a background check. Our human resources document states “All applications for employment will be standardized and will request information pertinent to the individual’s background necessary to determine the eligibility of the applicant.” Manbahal was no exception to this rule.

 

-In paragraph 44, Nelson and Schwebke write, “The audit does not name the employee, but Mansell has identified the water resources manager as Nadia Loukeh.” In accordance with WVWD human resources policy and practices, WVWD General Manager Clarence Mansell did not refer to the Water Resources Manager by name. Under the human resources policy and practices manual, all employee reviews are to be kept confidential and it is the responsibility of the general manager to maintain confidentiality. Noncompliance is in direct violation of the WVWD human resources policy and of state-guaranteed employee rights. The article should be corrected to reflect where and how Loukeh’s name was revealed.

  1. Unethical lack of respect for schedule/timing of inquiries and requests.

 

Nelson and Schwebke continue to submit multiple media inquiries without regard to the business and operational hours of the WVWD. Furthermore, these inquiries are placed with such unreasonable response limits that compliance with federal fair information practice principles is impossible. WVWD must ensure that proper consent has been given for the use of information, that such information is handled in a secure fashion and that the information is accurate and verifiable. As evidenced below, such short timelines give the WVWD an extremely limited window to verify that the information it is providing to the press is correct, which means that WVWD is left with the choice of either sharing potentially false information, or providing no comment, with either scenario leading to negative coverage of the WVWD.

 

-November 8, 2019 12:40 p.m. with a deadline to respond by 3:00 p.m. (included in attachment C),

 

-December 17, 2019 2:24 p.m. with a deadline to respond by 4:00 p.m. (included in attachment C).

 

-January 22, 2020 4:17 p.m. email (included in attachment C) sent to the assistant general manager with no response time offered. Rather, Nelson states “I filed story already, but there’s still time to get comment in from legal counsel Robert Tafoya and General Manager Clarence Mansell, who are the defendants in the suit.” Asking for comment on a suit that is yet to have been served to the defendants 43 minutes before the close of business.

 

SCNG has long stood watch over a community that has been struggling in recent years to work its way past decades of corruption and decline, and we, as citizens and public servants, have nothing but the highest respect and praise for the role this publication has played in informing and protecting society. Fairness and transparency are the basis of good journalism and SCNG’s sterling reputation, but we believe that Nelson and Schwebke’s conduct has not been consistent with the ethical standards of such an esteemed, trusted publication. Basing nearly an entire article on an unpublished, unsupported letter speaks not to Nelson and Schwebke’s search for truth, but perhaps of another, less than perfectly morally sound, objective.

 

When the new board was elected last year, citizens voted for change. We have new leadership and new policies that better reflect an understanding of our past mistakes and the needs of our customers. We own up to the failure of past boards, and we endeavor every day to atone for their misdeeds. Fairness would dictate that our sincere efforts since beginning our efforts for reform be prominently reported alongside others’ past failures, but in the article we find no mention of the measures taken by the new, current Board of Directors to improve the District until the very end of a 1,988 word article that most readers will never finish. There is a short quote from new Board President Channing Hawkins and a small mention of a hiring freeze instituted on January 9 before the article’s publication, but these words (describing the actions of the new board) are only 3.5 percent of the entire article.

 

We understand that we have lost the confidence of the people in our community, and believe that this community is served best not by perpetuating distrust, but by helping people again have faith in their institutions. It is SCNG’s duty to report not only our failures, but our honest efforts at redemption, and it is our hope that we will be given the space and voice to make the progress our shared community deserves.