Sat, Apr

LADWP Reform: Why the Rush?


BUTCHER ON LA-“…[T]he people of Los Angeles desired the size but not the character of a modern metropolis … to combine the spirit of the good community with the substance of the great metropolis.”

~ Robert Fogelson, “The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930,” 1967. 


“Los Angeles has always been a different kind of city. It is the prototypical western metropolis, built by bold entrepreneurs even though it lacked the natural advantages of traditional cities. It lacked water, transportation and the rudiments of the natural urban economy. But Los Angeles has always had the drive, energy and imagination to succeed, from its early settlers in the 1780s to the youngster today who comes to Los Angeles to carve out a new career and a new life,” writes Raphael Sonenshein in “Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government, 2006.”

“The framework for 20th century Progressive-era Los Angeles government was the 1925 charter,” he continues, "…the charter distilled the Los Angeles political culture, including its fear of corruption by elected officials.” 

Key and fundamental to Los Angeles’ first City Charter were the public control of utilities and the civil service protections for workers that stood in contrast to the spoils system of New York City and Chicago. Dr. Sonenshein reminds us this was the centerpiece of the 1925 Charter for avowed socialist and influential civic leader Dr. John Randolph Haynes. 

An amendment to the charter in 1937 extended civil service protections to city department heads after the recall Mayor Frank Shaw (the recall provision was an added linchpin of that first charter.) In 1951, Mayor Fletcher Bowron maneuvered to add a City Administrative Officer (CAO) to centralize budget authority. Mayor Sam Yorty’s Reining Commission rewrote the entire charter in 1966. In response, the City Council then rewrote the rewrite, affirming that the CAO would be responsive to both the Mayor and the City Council; it also added elected Neighborhood Councils. That deal blew up because the DWP feared the City would “take” more money; charter changes were defeated in 1970 and 1971. 

For the next 30 years, LA periodically voted on small and large charter amendments. In 1992, Prop F was passed, dramatically changing the way the Chief of Police is hired, employed, and fired. 

Late in his first term as Mayor, frustrated by his inability to corporatize and privatize the City, Richard Riordan decided to rewrite the city charter. Council President John Ferraro and a super-majority on the Council out-organized the Mayor and somehow, two charter reform commissions emerged, one appointed and one elected. 

For 22 tedious months, commissions, commissioners, and committees met, outreached, held countless public hearings in every part of 15 council districts; they polled, cajoled, lobbied, organized, threatened, debated, dialogued, compromised, and, sadly, died.

It was a big deal. It took a really long time. There was a lot of bad pizza. 

Ultimately, the folks who were most passionate and engaged back then were those advocating for increased community and neighborhood involvement and empowerment.

They still are. And now they (claim to) understand the city budget. 

“We're paying for the sins of the past,” Jack Humphreville told the LA Times (“L.A., pushing big water rate increases, seeks 18% more from typical users,” July 8, 2015). “In the past, the City Council didn't give DWP the rate increases they should have had to maintain the system.”

In the February 8 issue of CityWatchHumphreville states, “The DWP Oversight Committee recommends that there be a robust and transparent discussion and debate before any measure is placed on the ballot for voter approval or rejection.”

And on February 22, he predicts in CityWatch, “…[W]ithout real reform, Angelenos will vote NO on this tax increase, just like we did in 2013 when we rejected Proposition A, the permanent half cent increase in our sales tax.” 

Retired writer and esteemed former Daily News editor Ron Kaye calls it as he sees it: “It’s the typical shell game, bait-and-switch, starts out being something you're (I) am skeptical about and then they weaken it so they still have total control, because that’s the only way they can operate, co-opt the elections, pander to the bourgeoisie and then screw them. The Kantor-Beutner plan is B.S. They would still control the system; experts are as easily managed as everyone else on the DWP commission (except for Nick Patsaouras, who got sacked for his trouble.)

Kaye continues, “I don't support the neighborhood [integrity] initiative either for many of the same reasons; they can get around it a hundred ways. Both miss the point, in my mind, because the system is totally rigged, 100 percent, all city offices, with a partial exemption for Galperin, who's too sweet to make big row or confront the system.) 

“As my man Bernie says, it’s going to take a revolution -- and that applies to LA more than anywhere,” Kaye concluded.

Exactly what are the problems at the LADWP that would be best solved by a professional, independent commission? Are details available explaining the new DWP Personnel Department and the employment scheme proposed to replace the civil service system? Is the City expected to benefit as a result of capping and limiting income available from its utility? 

Recent reports and summaries of less recent reports all include most of the following problems at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power: 

  • Hiring
  • Contracting and procurement
  • Customer service
  • Cyber security
  • Security

(In my experience and based on direct knowledge, as it’s neither water nor power, no one at DWP is responsible for security. Rather, it is decentralized out to the myriad operations, plants, facilities, reservoirs. Some do a good job. Some not so much. (Snide aside: Poor Pat Finley, taking the fall for poor planning and bad management?)

  • Emergency Preparedness & Disaster Recovery
  • IT issues & Technology Infrastructure
  • Implementation of infrastructure plans
  • Economic development and community outreach (in recommendations of Frederick Pickel, LADWP Ratepayer Advocate, January 15, 2016) 

“On balance, this report shows us a department that delivers water and power dependably to the people of Los Angeles,” said Controller Ron Galperin on December 10, 2015, announcing the latest 600-page “survey” by Navigant Consulting, Inc. “However, insufficient accountability, lack of transparency, and politicization jeopardize the department’s ability to meet the challenges of the future.” 

“The goal of the survey was to provide targeted recommendations for improvement,” continues the Controller’s December 2015 release. 

“For example, in assessing how the department operates within the larger structure of Los Angeles City government, the consultants identified a series of organizational and management challenges. The consultants wrote that the DWP is handicapped because ‘there is no single outside entity or coordinated group to set policy, provide specific goals and metrics, monitor performance, and hold LADWP accountable.’ 

“To enable the department to better accomplish its goals, consultants called in the near-term for increased transparency through reporting and for tying future rate increases to financial and performance metrics specified by ordinance.…

“The report identified several alternative governance structures and recommended an honest and public debate about the most effective way forward. 

“Galperin called upon the City Council to begin that process by establish a working group to craft a solution for voters.” 

Yadi Hashemi, engineer, retired LA city worker, human rights and labor activist and charter expert, reevaluates parts of the proposal again: “I have no problem advocating for paid commissioners at the DWP if that emerges as a feasible solution to an actual problem. I don’t remember now why that didn’t happen during charter reform.” 

“Additionally,” Hashemi adds, “the Public Works Commission is long-term functional. Maybe they could help.” 

What about the workers? Do DWP employees want to give up a merit-based hiring and promotional system? 

The County of Los Angeles allows each of its departments to establish and operate their own Personnel Departments; in Los Angeles, the LAPD is itching for the City to turn all that personnel work – hiring, background checks, administrative processing – back over to sworn officers in a newly-constituted, independent LAPD Personnel Department. 

“There needs to be deep and honest analysis of the problems these reforms are meant to solve,” argues Cheryl Parisi, Chair of the Coalition of LA City Unions, which represents six international unions and 25,000 city workers. “So far all we’ve seen is a Motion and a speech. The City's strong civil service system has resulted in a work force that is highly competent and committed to the highest levels of service. These are important policy considerations that will significantly impact current and future workers, at the DWP and across the City, and we’re standing strong to protect all of LA’s workers.”


(Julie Butcher writes for CityWatch, is a retired union leader and is now enjoying Riverside and her first grandchild. She can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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