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A Local Water Board Paid an Employee Not to Work There. Now He’s on the Board.

Hector Martinez is vice president of the South Bay Irrigation District’s board of directors. / Photo by Megan Wood

Five years ago, the Sweetwater Authority paid one of its engineers $175,000 to drop a lawsuit against the water district if he agreed to never work there again.

Now, the engineer, Hector Martinez, is one of seven board members in charge of running the district.

He also has ties to a former board member who, years earlier, was paid in exchange for leaving the district’s board.

In 2014, the district paid [1] to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit Martinez filed [2] against Sweetwater, which provides drinking water to National City and parts of Chula Vista. Martinez claimed the district didn’t give him a promotion in 2008 because he is Hispanic.

Martinez’s lawsuit was just one part of a campaign to change how Sweetwater is run.

In 2008, Martinez helped recruit a friend from Democratic political circles, Jose Preciado, to run for the Sweetwater board.

The pair would later help form a group called the Chula Vista Democratic Club. They wanted the club to act against discrimination in the South Bay, specifically discrimination against employees of the water district.

The Sweetwater Authority has an oddly composed board [3]. It’s made up of five elected officials from the South Bay Irrigation District and two members appointed by National City’s mayor.

Preciado said Martinez was only one of several people who encouraged him to run for the South Bay Irrigation District. Preciado won and joined the Sweetwater board.

Since the Sweetwater board oversees the agency’s general manager, and the general manager oversees the engineers, by backing a board candidate, Martinez was helping to pick one of his boss’ bosses.

At about the same time, other members of the Sweetwater board started complaining publicly [4] about another board member, then-National City Councilman Mitch Beauchamp.

One then-Sweetwater board member, James Alkire, alleged Beauchamp had “formed a personal relationship with an employee about whom the board is making sensitive personnel choices.”

It’s not clear from public records who that employee is, but the Union-Tribune reported at the time that board members had accused Beauchamp of telling Martinez what was said in closed session meetings.

In a recent interview, Martinez said he and Beauchamp had become friendly at the time and were working on projects in Mexico for a nonprofit that helps install water systems.

Martinez said, to the best of his recollection, Beauchamp never shared anything with him that happened during the board’s closed sessions. He added that even if Beauchamp had, it wouldn’t have mattered.

“If he had said, ‘Hector, they are trying to get you’ – I already knew that,” Martinez said.

Beauchamp, who is now National City’s treasurer [5], also said in an email he did not share any closed session information with Martinez. Beauchamp, who has dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States, said “the real story” isn’t about Martinez’s actions but about “racism on the part of the Anglo board” that used to be in charge of Sweetwater. Now, the board is majority Latino.

Beauchamp alleged that members of the old Sweetwater board had violated open meetings laws [6] when they urged National City’s mayor to remove Beauchamp from the Sweetwater board.

As a result of pressure from Beauchamp, Sweetwater cut a deal [7]. Sweetwater didn’t admit any wrongdoing; Beauchamp agreed to drop his complaint, resign from the board and never seek to join the board again. The district paid Beauchamp $9,500 [8].

A few years later, Sweetwater would again pay to settle a complaint and attempt to make people go away.

In 2012, several years after he didn’t get the promotion, Martinez filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit [9], along with several other employees. Martinez’s lawsuit pointed out the person who got the job instead had resigned by the time the lawsuit was filed, a fact Martinez used to argue the other person hadn’t been a good pick.

Sweetwater denied any misconduct and said the lawsuit was filed too late.

In early 2014, Sweetwater and Martinez agreed to settle the case.

“They settled with me,” Martinez said. “Obviously there must be something there.”

Preciado, the friend Martinez had recruited for the board, was chairman by then [10], and received closed session updates on the litigation with Martinez.

In an interview, Preciado called Martinez his best friend. But, he said, he didn’t need to recuse himself from any of those deliberations because there’s no conflict of interest.

“He lives in his house, I live in my house,” Preciado said.

Martinez received $175,000 to settle the discrimination complaint.

He also agreed “not to seek re-employment” with the district “in any capacity.”

That, though, did not stop Martinez from running for the board in 2018 [11]. He campaigned to cut wasteful spending, keep rates low and create a “lifeline” rate for seniors.

While he signed away an employment opportunity, he didn’t sign away his rights to run for office, according to a later analysis by Sweetwater’s attorney [12]. The district’s current general manager, Tish Berge, said elected board members are generally not considered employees.

“Hector Martinez has not sought and has not been hired as an employee of the Authority,” she wrote in an email. “He chose to exercise his right to run for office for a position on the South Bay Irrigation District Board.”

Martinez noted he won his election overwhelmingly. He got 65 percent of the vote in a three-way race last fall.

Martinez also said he is not out for vengeance against anyone at the agency he now helps oversee.

“Everybody that I felt that hurt me or stifled my career as an engineer is gone,” he said.