EL CENTRO – At least one of the five senior staff members of the Imperial Irrigation District Energy Department placed on leave in a controversial action last fall has filed a claim against the district alleging age discrimination and violation of whistleblower status.
The claim filed on behalf of Paul Peschel by Johnson Employment Law of Tustin was received by IID on June 27, according to the agenda for the July 19 IID Board of Directors meeting posted on the district website. It seeks damages in excess of $25,000, a common minimum threshold for such claims, which typically do not include the exact amount of damages sought.
The IID board denied the claim at its July 19 meeting on a 4-0-1 vote with Director Bruce Kuhn abstaining, according to an e-mail from Antonio Ortega, district government affairs and communications officer.
The matter was initially part of the meeting’s consent agenda, a group of several items that are approved together rather than individually. However, according to Ortega, it was removed from the consent agenda and added to the action agenda at the request of Director Norma Sierra Galindo. It was then voted on as an individual item “after a brief discussion.”
Interim General Counsel Frank Oswalt stated that Peschel would be advised of the denial and he would have six months to file a lawsuit, if he so desired.
Kuhn commented that he and Peschel were friends and that he would abstain from the voting.
Minutes from the meeting were not yet available as of Aug. 11.
A claim is often a pre-cursor to a lawsuit. By law, before a public entity can be sued it first must be served with a claim for damages.
Contacted by telephone, Peschel referred the matter to his attorney, Brenna V. Johnson. She did not return voicemails seeking comment.
Five senior members of the Energy Department involved with electric-power transmission, planning and engineering were placed on paid administrative leave in October and replaced with employees of the Folsom-based energy consulting firm ZGlobal, Inc., under a three-year, $9.1 million agreement. Four were also later given notices of intent to terminate, except Peschel who opted for retirement.
IID did not initially release their names and again declined to in response to a California Public Records Act Request from The Desert Review.
A sixth employee, an engineer hired to attend and monitor activity at meetings of out-of-town electric-power organizations, was released from IID employment at a later date and had been with the agency for less than a year, sources said. The employee also was not identified by the district.
Peschel’s claim states he was among the “senior engineers” placed on leave Oct. 16. It states the action “forced” him into early retirement on April 1 “rather than being terminated.” He had been employed by the IID for nearly 30 years, sources said.
In January, Peschel was named general manager of the Kings River Conservation District, a Fresno-based water utility. He still holds that position.
Peschel’s claim states that after he returned from medical leave in 2015 he complained to his supervisor about “vacancies and staffing,” and that IID, “Rather than fill the vacant positions in the Energy Department with IID employees, IID placed the senior engineers on administrative leave.”
Alleging age discrimination, the claim states all the affected employees were over age 50 and that there is “prima facie evidence of age discrimination by IID.”
At the same time Peschel and the four others were placed on leave, district General Manager Kevin Kelley re-assigned Energy Department Manager Carl Stills, first making him co-manager with the newly hired Vicken Kasarjian, and in December moving him out of the position altogether and leaving Kasarjian as sole manager.
Kasarjian is a power industry veteran who recently had consulted for ZGlobal.
Kelley stated at the time the moves were necessary to improve the Energy Department’s ability to keep its electric rates low and expand its transmission capabilities. He was critical of the quality of work of those placed on leave. A major issue for the district is expanding its access to electricity from Imperial County’s burgeoning renewable energy industry and moving it to other California utilities seeking to purchase it, and Kelley asserted the personnel moves would further that goal.
The district’s reasoning for dismissing the five engineers was detailed in an April 12 internal report released by IID to The Desert Review. Though it did not name them, the report prepared by then-IID General Counsel Ross Simmons alleged some of their work was “garbage” and “placed the IID’s transmission system—and the safety of its employees in the field—at risk and resulted in major expenditures on unnecessary projects.”
But some community members have argued the move was ill-advised given the experience of those removed and the good work they were doing. They also questioned whether ZGlobal and Kasarjian have conflicts of interest due to ZGlobal’s work with many other entities in the electric-power industry.
Peschel’s claim specifically mentions that, alleging “ZGlobal is believed to work with a large number of Independent Power Producers. ZGlobal is also believed to provide, monitor, and facilitate energy interests in the Imperial and El Centro valleys, thus creating constant conflicts of interests.”
The claim likely meant to state Imperial and Coachella valleys, two areas that make up the bulk of IID’s electric-power service area that includes 150,000 customers.
Now that the claim has been denied the next step would be the filing of a lawsuit on Peschel’s behalf. It was not immediately known if such a suit had been filed but Peschel’s claim states “jurisdiction over this claim rests in El Centro or Riverside Superior Court,” likely meaning Imperial or Riverside counties.
The other four staffers placed on leave with Peschel had the option of appealing that action, Kelley stated. According to sources close to the matter speaking on the condition of anonymity, such appeal hearings were held involving an unknown number of the four.
One of the four completed the internal appeal process and in July was given a notice from IID that he was terminated and his paychecks from the district ceased, the sources said. That employee also intends to file a claim against the district, it has been learned.