Whistleblower Lawsuit Blasts Santa Ynez River District

Water Rights Engineer Says She was Underpaid, Bullied, and Forced Out

Else Wolff, a Goleta hydrogeologist, is suing her former employer, the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, alleging whistleblower retaliation and sex discrimination. | Credit: Chris Yasko

A hydrogeologist who was laid off last summer from a Santa Ynez water district has filed suit against her former employers, alleging that her boss misused public resources, made her his personal secretary, physically threatened her when she objected, then conspired to force her out after she reported him.

Else Wolff, 45, a graduate of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School and UCSB with two master’s degrees in hydrology and engineering, was hired by the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District in late 2017 as a senior-level surface water program manager after two decades in the private sector.

It was her “dream job,” she said, to safeguard supplies from Lake Cachuma for farmers, ranchers, and Lompoc residents downstream of the dam, ensuring that their rights to well water from the Santa Ynez River would be protected.

But in a complaint filed March 24 in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, representing herself, Wolff alleges that the district board and its agents, primarily former General Manager Bruce Wales, engaged in whistleblower retaliation, sex discrimination, workplace violence, defamation, breach of contract, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” and violated the California Equal Pay Act. She is seeking a jury trial and unspecified punitive damages, in addition to back pay and retirement benefits.

Wolff’s lawsuit comes at a time when standards for the workplace behavior of bosses toward the female employees they supervise are shifting. Spurred by the #MeToo movement and legal actions against male executives across the country, these changes are unearthing decades of deeply embedded sexist norms under which women were routinely humiliated, insulted, and harassed on the job and expected to endure and forbear, or risk being fired.

“I had worked 17 years in engineering, in a male-dominated field,” Wolff said in a recent interview from her home in Winchester Canyon. “But at the district, I felt like I had time-traveled back to the ’60s. I wanted to keep my dream job, but there were certain things I was not going to put up with.”

District: No Comment

Not to be confused with the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1, which serves water to 12,000 people in Solvang and environs, Wolff’s district was the just-plain Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, one of the smallest public agencies in the county. The district had five employees when Wolff was there; today, there are four.

Members of the public rarely attend the district’s five yearly board meetings. There was little pushback in mid-2018 when the board raised groundwater rates by 47 percent.

Contacted by phone this month, Wales, who retired last April, declined to comment on Wolff’s allegations. Bill Buelow, the district groundwater program manager; board Vice President Brett Marymee of Santa Ynez; and Director Steve Jordan, a Lompoc Valley farmer, did not respond to requests for comment.

Board President Cynthia Allen; Director Art Hibbits, a Lompoc Valley farmer, and a representative of Bakersfield law firm of Young Wooldridge LLP declined to comment, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. According to Wolff, an attorney from the firm was hired by the district to conduct an internal investigation of employee complaints against Wales, beginning on Sept. 17, 2018.

Correcting Men

Wolff says she told Allen and the investigator that Wales worked chiefly from home and did not own a computer or know how to use one, and that it was a longstanding custom for district staff to access his email for him from their office computers. Wales called her “a bunny,” she said, and ordered her to take dictation, file documents and read his emails to him over the phone. Along the way, Wolff said, he advised her “not to correct men because they don’t like being corrected by women.” 

It got worse, Wolff said; she told Allen and the investigator how, in May 2018, she saw Wales throw a chair in the direction of Buelow, who was cowering in his seat as Wales stood over him screaming “F— you! F— you!” with his fists cocked. In July that year, Wales again threatened Buelow, but this time, Wolff walked out: “I couldn’t handle it,” she said.

Buelow told her he reported the abuse to Allen and other board members at the time, but they did nothing to stop it, Wolff said. There was no procedure for employee grievances at the district.

In July, Wolff said, Wales told her he was going to recommend her to the board as his successor. But on September 11, 2018, she said, while Buelow was on vacation, Wales went into another rage, this time directed at her. He rolled his chair over to hers so that she could read him his email from her computer, she said, and, knowing that he could be violent, she turned on the voice recording function on her cell phone and told him he was being recorded.

“I said, ‘I’m not your typist … I wasn’t hired to operate a computer for you,’” Wolff recalled. “He grabbed my phone away from me and physically intimidated me by standing over me with his fists clenched as if he was going to hit me. When he knew he was being recorded, he stopped screaming.

“Hours after I stood up to Bruce, the retaliation started. He began blocking information and impeding my ability to do my job.”

On District Time

On September 25, 2018, Wolff said, she sent a memo to Allen, the investigator and the county District Attorney, alleging that Wales was misusing public resources. Specifically, she stated, he was using her and other employees for at least one hour every day to help him manage some out-of-state rentals and a private mutual water company near Los Olivos — on district time. It was effectively costing the district $600 per month, including $100 for color copies of Wales’s private emails and attachments, Wolff said.

Meanwhile, Wolff said, Wales was hiding documents, excluding her from meetings, directing colleagues at other agencies not to keep her in the loop, and refusing her access to the emails on his computer that pertained to her work. She said she repeatedly reported this behavior to board members.

During the investigation, Wolff said, she and Buelow listened in as Wales browbeat a district administrator, coaching her on what to tell the investigator. She had put her cellphone on speaker phone so that her colleagues could hear. In thinly veiled language, Wolff said, Wales threatened to fire the administrator and her mother, who also worked at the district, saying, “You both work for me.”

On October 22, the board announced that Wales was stepping down as general manager as of November 1 but would stay on as “Strategic Advisor.” He remained at the district for nearly six more months. The district did not respond to a request this week for information about Wales’s salary and retirement benefits.

During 24 years at the district, Wales generally kept a low profile. But he made headlines in 2016, in the midst of a severe drought, when he arranged for the surprise release of a larger-than-expected supply of Cachuma water to downstream users. The move was legal, but lake levels were perilously low, and it infuriated South Coast water managers, who shared the reservoir and felt blindsided. It was “borderline criminal,” one of them said.

A press release from the Santa Ynez district announcing Wales’s retirement stated that one of his last assignments was to “coordinate the recruitment campaign for his replacement.” 

Wolff and Buelow both applied for the job. By then, Wolff had learned that Buelow, who she said held a position equal to hers, was earning $130,000 per year, or $30,000 more than she was being paid. The board named Buelow interim general manager.

“Flavors of Hell”

As the board’s strategic advisor, Wales tailor-wrote the job description for general manager so as to exclude her, Wolff said. He also intervened, she said, to prevent her from taking an exam that would have certified her as a “special district manager” in California, and he failed to forward her application for the job to the board.

Buelow now turned on her, too, Wolff said, accusing her of “hacking into” Wales’s emails. “It was like getting hit and run over by a bus,” she recalled. In February, 2019, Wolff said, Buelow followed up with an unwarranted and “spectacularly bad review” of her job performance. On March 1, distraught and unable to sleep, she took a medical leave. 

The board quickly appointed Kevin Walsh, board president of Santa Ynez Improvement District No. 1, a former general manager of the Goleta Water District and a friend and associate of Wales, as general manager. Wolff was laid off at the end of June; the district cited “budgetary shortfalls.” Walsh offered her $12,500 if she would agree not to sue, she said, but she turned him down.

In all, Wolff said, it was a shattering experience, especially as compared to her prior job. As a senior geologist with the URS Corp., a federal contractor, she said, she received a $10,000 merit raise for her work on the remedial investigation report for the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site, the hazardous waste landfill that was shut down in 1989.

“I haven’t been able to drive through Santa Ynez,” Wolff said. “Even crossing over the river at Buellton is sad. There were two flavors of making my life hell at the district. One was interference with my ability to do my job. The second flavor was the false accusations, and it’s the false accusations that hurt the most.” 

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara. 

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