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Chairwoman Gloria Gray and The Politics of Water
By Danny Bakewell Jr. Executive Editor
Published February 16, 2022

Gloria Gray (file photo)

Despite a career of fighting for diversity and inclusion, the two-term chairwoman finds herself facing unwarranted challenges and accusations. 

Gloria Gray is the first African American woman ever elected chairperson of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and in fact, only the second woman ever elected chair in MWD’s 90+ years of existence.   The extremely influential and powerful board represents six  Southern California counties and serves over 19 million customers throughout the region.   

But, after an almost two-year battle to put forth an executive committee, Gloria Gray finds herself in the unfamiliar place of being accused of not appointing a board that is diverse or inclusive enough to be approved. 

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One of the MWD chairperson’s duties is to appoint chairs and vice chairs of all of the committees that are responsible to research, review and make recommendations to the 38-member governing board.  However, despite a responsibility which has traditionally been perfunctory, Gloria Gray has found herself in a battle to appoint the individuals she would like to serve in these roles. 

“My slate has not only been rejected by a small group of the board’s members, but also has been voted down twice,” said Chairperson Gray.   

While Gray is proud of the slate of leaders that she has brought forward, she is finding the process to be very frustrating because she is enduring far less amicable circumstances than any previous chairperson has had to withstand. 

(File photo)

The process is far more complicated than just having a majority of the members approve her recommendation.  Because of a weighted process for securing board approval, some member’s votes weigh much more than others.  

Gray’s recommendations were approved with over 70% of the members voting in favor, but a small group of board members, who represent the larger part of the region, are voting against Gray’s recommendations.  As a result, her recommendations have been voted down, despite receiving 26 YES votes to 12 NO votes.  

What is more concerning is that earlier this year, the MWD board agreed to create three new committees – 1) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, 2) Underserved Communities and 3) Imported Water.  However, because these are new committees, the failure of the board to approve leadership for these committees renders these committees inactive and unable to function. 

 This contentious denial of leadership has garnered attention from both the state and regional NAACP offices.  Referring to the MWD board, Darrell Goode, president of the NAACP Santa Monica-Venice Branch, said that the chairwoman appears to be “subject to some questionable and or challenging racial biases.” 

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 In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Goode stated, “It has been brought to our attention that there may be some biases or prejudice or even racially motivated attitudes towards the chairwoman.” 

Gray, in defending her agenda and her slate of appointees, said, “When you look at the overall makeup of the board, my committee appointments are far more diverse than the board itself.”   

The MWD Board is made up of 63% male, 37% female and 42% people of color.  However, Gray’s executive committee as recommended would be 55% male, 45% female and 40% people of color and that does not include the two people of color who refused to serve on committees, which would have significantly increased the percentage of people of color. 

Looking at the history of MWD’s Executive committees, despite what her critics say, Gray’s nominations would produce the most diverse executive committee that board has ever had.  But, despite this fact, her colleagues are claiming to not approve Gray’s recommendations because of its “lack of diversity.” 

Gray says that in all of her years of serving on the board, she has never witnessed a chairperson’s nominations being treated with so much dissent.  She insists that her appointments don’t affect the board’s ability to legislate and that it does not in any way take away their voting power.   

She wonders, “Why am I being treated differently than any of the other board chairs in the history of the board?” 

Gloria Gray stands by her record and says she has always been an advocate of community issues.  She says that the past three years and her second term have been very challenging. Also, a number of obstacles have been placed in her way in a manner that has never been done in the board’s nearly 100-year history. 

 “When I was elected, I pledged to fight for critical issues for water in underserved communities and throughout the state,” Gray says.  However, “petty political” battles have undermined her ability to address these issues. 

The opposition has not proposed an alternative slate, even though Gray says she collaborated with over 90% of the board to create the slate that she nominated.  But, despite her desire to work in partnership with the board, each time she has proposed a slate, the opposition has shot it down. 

Several of the opponents of her executive committee slate ran against Gray for chair and since they were unsuccessful in defeating her, it appears they are playing a vindictive brand of politics. 

Despite what appears to be outside of political protocols, Gray’s nominations even drew comments from Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin, a former member of the board who voted against Gray’s original slate.   

After leaving the board, the Councilwoman wrote a letter to Gray alleging her recommendations were not diverse enough and encouraged her to withdraw the nominations.  However, Ballin did not share any advice or guidance as to how these recommendations could ultimately be approved.   

Adan Ortega, Ballin’s replacement on the MWD board, followed suit and voted against Gray’s second round of nominations.  Gray said she did respond to the Ballin’s letter, but as of Sentinel press time, we have not received or seen that response letter. 

The real question is why would this small group of members want to block opportunities for advancement and diversity.  That answer and a solution to this crisis is still to be written, but we will all wait to see. 

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