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My Reform Forum Takeaway: DWP Reform Not Ready for Prime Time

EASTSIDER-In lieu of my normal straight reporting job on these events, let me just say my take-away from Tuesday evening’s DWP Reform Forum, organized by the Pat Brown Institute and CSULA, is all in the headline above -- after attending this forum, trying to put DWP Governance Reform on this year’s ballot would be a colossal mistake. 

 

The professional politicians in attendance were predictable. The Mayor was his usual glib, articulate, pleasant, and ultimately empty self. Controller Ron Galperin was the honest politician in the group. He admitted that, while he would personally like the hundreds of millions of dollars in Transfer Fees the City gets from DWP to go away, as Controller he knows that the City Budget would collapse if that happened. Councilman Fuentes did his five point version of the valley two-step, and is blatantly angling for a new full time job on the kind of DWP Board he is proposing. 

As was pointed out by Dr. Raphael Sonenshein from the Pat Brown Institute (host of the event,) the fact that almost all in the audience were voters meant that this was a disproportionately knowledgeable and influential group of attendees. 

There was a solid “policy wonk” discussion about how reform of the DWP should work and what should be included. However, there was also much lost in the pushback against the DWP, the City Council, and the Mayor as expressed by many in the audience. 

As Tony Wilkinson from the Neighborhood Council’s DWP Oversight Committee put it, most of his friends only want to talk about what’s happening with the rip-off DWP Joint Union Management Committee and the $20 million dollars that was spent. The larger issues are not even on their radar screens. 

A lot of people seem to think that a big rate increase now, while so many are hurting, is simply not ok. And it’s true that the bottom half of our growing two-class society is getting priced out being able to live in Los Angeles, even if they’ve been here for generations. 

Some people wanted to know that, since we’ve all been good little Angeleno’s and have saved so much water, why our rates are now being adjusted upwards because we’ve used too little water? 

Union Boss Brian D’Arcy and the perceived 15-30% premium that his workers receive at the DWP over what other City employees earn was clearly a sore point, legal explanations notwithstanding. Cries of ‘why can’t the DWP use cheaper labor to do work’ abounded, particularly regarding subcontractors. There was real frustration and anger. Simply put, the troops don’t trust the DWP. While Mr. D’Arcy may not care, his shenanigans have really hurt the Department’s image and any confidence the public might feel toward the DWP as a whole. 

For me, the iconic moment came when a gentleman from Watts asked General Manager Marcie Edwards a simple question -- Why has the solar program never been offered to the residents of Watts in all these years, and what are you going to do about it? 

The questioner, Reverend Shorty Mac of the Redemption Ministries, received a classic response that tells it all – he was offered information on the solar panel programs that had nothing to do with his question. When pressed, Ms. Edwards mumbled something about talking offline, but I saw no indication that she actually got any contact information from Mr. Mac. 

I hate to say it, having been a social worker in Watts in the late 60’s, but clearly not too much has changed in the City’s treatment of that community over the last 50 years. Talk about tone deaf. 

All of these comments and questions tell me that if the City is crazy enough to put one or two DWP reform measures on this year’s ballot, they might as well save the money. They won’t pass, and the City is lucky that the rate increases themselves are not subject to a vote of the people. 

It’s really a shame. The truth of the matter is that if we were a private utility we’d be paying a lot more for our water and power, and there would be no public input concerning our rate increases. The DWP, for all its frailties, is quite cost effective compared to the alternatives.

And the reality is that our politicians, by kicking the can down the road year after year in favor of their pet projects, accepting the DWP transfer fees into the City’s general fund yet blocking needed infrastructure funding, have largely themselves to blame for creating this mess in the first place. If we want reliable water and power, the rate increases are needed. Truth to be told (hats off to the Ratepayers Advocate), they even include provisions for adjustments up or down over the five-year period so that we don’t have to do this again for a while. The Department absolutely needs this funding certainty to be able to budget big ticket infrastructure improvements over time. 

I think that a large part of the citizen pushback on rate increases has to do with the absolute inability of the DWP to provide simple and credible explanations to people about the costs for providing reliable water and power in our hot desert. I notice this even at the Neighborhood Council DWP Committee meetings. The second that any data comes out (and there’s a lot of data), most folks shut their eyes and zone out. Overcoming this hurdle is critical. It’s also very hard to build trust when you have to cover for the lies of politicians in addition to explaining billing system errors that are going to take too long to fix as the Department moves from Cobol, RPG, and punch card hardware into 21st century computer technology. 

As to the details of the discussion itself, there were a lot of good points made at the Forum. Unfortunately, I believe there is no practical way to take these ideas and put them together in time to meet the deadline to place a cohesive, well-thought out DWP Reform proposal in front of the voters by November. Not a chance. 

It’s clear that the city’s micro-managing approach to approving trivial expenditures means that the GM cannot do her job in a timely and cost-effective manner. Period. While this may sound like something simple to fix, good luck fleshing out what it all means in terms of modifying Administrative Codes or the Charter. 

A great idea that everyone seemed to agree on is the need to seriously beef up of the role of the role of the Ratepayer Advocate, allowing that office to do its job as outside independent experts for DWP. This way, feedback could be provided to management before final proposals are made to the DWP Board; it could actually provide some objective data for the final product. The problem is that this would probably require a Charter Change, and how’s that gonna happen?

There was agreement that the City Council and the Mayor need to lighten up and provide general oversight of the Department. George Kieffer, (a Manat, Phelps alumnus and part of the Charter Reform Commission,) suggested that the City Council should have to have a super majority to veto a decision of the DWP Board. He also said that the Mayor should be able to appoint Commissioners, but not to directly fire them. These are neat ideas, but again, there is not a chance that they can be worked out in time for a ballot measure. 

There was also a universal hue and cry about the City Personnel Department and the Civil Service system and how the DWP is not able to hire good people in a reasonable time frame. Well, DWP reform isn’t going to fix this. Actually, if anyone cares, there are some very concrete things that could be done consistent with the charter, such as decentralizing the City’s Personnel function and letting DWP have its own personnel department, as well as modifying some class specs and desirable qualifications for local hire/promotion. Again, though, you can’t do this in a few weeks or months. 

I think the Forum was a positive experience, because it clearly revealed the fault lines between City Hall, the DWP and the voters. It also demonstrated to me that any half-baked, self-serving City Council Charter Amendment for DWP governance is going to run into the same buzz saw that has chopped up the Republican and Democratic Presidential primaries. 

To the Powers That Be: Please, please do us all a favor and shelve the idea for this year. 

Let the interested parties outside of the Mayor and the Council try to work through all these important and technically difficult issues in order to come up with some sort of consensus that can be presented to the voters as a Ballot measure. But let us not wait too long to do this. 

Remember, as Marcie Edwards pointed out, the DWP has had 11 General Managers in some 15 years. And she has had enough time as a public employee to leave and go elsewhere or retire. 

‘Ya can’t run a railroad when you keep firing the engineer.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.