Sat, May

DWP ‘Reform’: Screwing the Workers Won’t Solve the Problem


BUTCHER ON LA-Everyone’s got an opinion about what needs to be reformed at the LA Department of Water and Power.


“…[T]he culture, work ethic, and training of the DWP is so isolated and backward…The culture of DWP will kill DWP!” commented William Foster about a recent CityWatch piece. 

The City’s CAO and CLA prepared two joint PowerPoints on the topic just this year. This summary is on page six of their February 19, 2016 presentation to the City Council’s Rules, Elections, Intergovernmental Relations, and Neighborhoods Committee. It briefs years of varied, some contradictory analyses and criticisms of the utility: 

  • Rand Study (1999) – Current structure cumbersome; options to modify: a) create a city‐owned corporation with centralized authority; b) create an independent city agency with a strong board.
  • IEA Survey (2009) – Structure impedes efficient decision making, accountability, lacks independent analysis.
  • Council motions (2010) – Created Office of the Rate Payer Advocate.
  • 2020 Commission (2014) – Instability due to political interference and high leadership turnover; recommended a LA Utility Commission (sic).
  • IEA Survey (2015) – Challenges include decentralized City authority, hiring process, lack of transparency and ambiguous role of the OPA.

Closer to home, I get comments from family, friends, and city workers, like…”Why all this attention to DWP reform? I mean, they’re still delivering water and power to their customers at lower rates than other utilities, right? I know the whole ‘what did D'Arcy do with the money’ left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, but what else is at stake here?” 

In response to my suggestion that the water portion of the DWP should be moved into a unified city water department ,as is done in many cities, I heard, “No, that would not work! LOL! I think it would be a PR nightmare to say, ‘Your fresh water, brought to you by the Bureau of Sanitation’!” 

From the same friend: “From a city worker point of view, I would like to see the pay inequity and benefit difference resolved with the classifications that exist in the city and DWP. It seems funny to write that, because both are the city, but somehow treated differently. DWP doesn't need to have its own set of Gardeners, Tree Surgeons, Custodians, etc. 

“But in a kind of defense of the DWP, we can't forget that they are still charging better rates than their counterparts, like Edison and PG&E.” 

“The biggest problem is that DWP tries to act independent from the city. Or is it a problem? Do we really want a DWP that a CAO like Santana can get his mitts around, the way he has with the city?”

City workers know what’s up. “DWP must remain a public utility. It is top heavy. Breaking it up may be the way to go,” comments one veteran City Haller. 

The LA Weekly emphatically concludes that the current DWP “reform” proposal will lead to higher rates and here’s the logic: 

“Under [Fuentes’] plan, the DWP Commission would be replaced by a full-time board. The members would be experts in the field, and would serve staggered terms, insulating them from City Hall. The most critical provision — which has gotten zero attention so far — relates to rates: 

‘Board actions — including ratemaking — would no longer require City Council approval unless the City Council asserts jurisdiction.’ (Emphasis kept from the original article.) 

“It's hard to overstate the importance of this provision. Under the current system — the product of more than 100 years of governance reform — the City Council must approve any rate increases. This exerts a downward pressure on rates. No politician wants to approve an increase and face the wrath of voters.” 

City labor has responded strongly to the proposal to eliminate civil service at DWP. The Jewish Labor Committee writes in its March 1 letter: “It serves to remember: Civil Service is a merit-based system of personnel management that has effectively prevented City Hall corruption and cronyism for decades. Because this system also levels the playing field in hiring, it was used by Mayor Tom Bradley to bring underrepresented people of color in the City workforce. These are proud pillars of Los Angeles’ democratic tradition. It is because of civil service rules, too, that the City has retained such a competent and diverse workforce.” 

“Good Dems don’t eliminate civil service,” exclaimed a union staff friend regarding City Controller Ron Galperin: “More transparency, not less! He had to sue to get simple info, for crying out loud!” 

At a Special Meeting of the Rules, Elections, Intergovernmental Relations, and Neighborhoods Committee, held in the San Fernando Valley last Thursday, SEIU 721 Political Director James Johnson used his one-minute comment period to express puzzlement and outrage:

“Frankly, I’m puzzled that we’re here talking about this. First, the union that represents DWP’s Security Officers is hearing about this all in the LA Times. And at a time we should all be focused on doing everything we can to save this country, if nothing changes and if the proposal going forward includes the deletion of civil service anyplace in the City, it’s something we can’t support, won’t support.” 

“And instead of figuring out how to send members to battleground states for the November election, we’ll have to focus on defeating this. 

“There may be a need for some reforms at the DWP, but this is taking a meat cleaver to a problem best addressed with a surgical scalpel. 

“The elimination of civil service is something we cannot support, will not support,’ Johnson ended.” 

Food and Water Watch’s Southern California organizer Walker Foley read from a strongly-worded letter of opposition submitted by the group: “This motion would make LADWP less accountable and would undermine efforts to improve the ways in which LADWP sources and provides water and power.” 

“…The motion could further entrench policies that must be reformed, such as the utility’s dangerous dependence on imported natural gas and imported water, which come at great expense to LADWP customers and the environment.” 

In testimony at the hearing, Foley added: “Anytime a politician says we need less politics in the process, what that really means is we’re trying to remove ballot-box accountability from the governance of the utility.” 

“We urge you to oppose this motion which would undermine democratic governance and public oversight.” 

The City Firefighters’ Union has weighed in. From UFLAC’s letter dated February 19, 2016: “In the same week that the City Council is considering a proposal to ‘cap’ the annual DWP transfer to the General Fund, it must be pointed out that just a few days ago in the City Council's Public Safety Committee, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told the Committee that he needs 2,500 additional LAPD officers to effectively police our streets. Like Firefighters, more Police Officers will require more revenue to the General Fund.” 

City labor leaders, referencing the Coalition of LA City Unions’ legal brief, submitted correspondence and testimony to the committee specifically opposing “the inclusion in the Motion of amendments to remove DWP from the Civil Service system.” 

“It’s a bad idea. It’s just wrong,” testified AFSCME Local 3090 leader Carmen Hayes-Walker. “You would literally be putting holes in the careers of dedicated city workers who’ve been promised a system of fairness and opportunity.” 

Teresa Sánchez, AFSCME staff member, proposed solutions that have worked before. “If there’s a problem hiring, recruiting, training, or moving people up, let’s fix the problems….This year the City reached an historic agreement with the Coalition to hire 5000 new workers and we are committed to working with the City to do this in an innovative way. We’re working to modernize the hiring process to be responsive to all city departments, partnering with community organizations, focusing on apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, and focused local hiring in Los Angeles….We would welcome the DWP to be part of this.” 

Charter Commissioners Bennett Kayser and Charley Mims recalled the deliberative process of both the elected and appointed charter commissions. 

“We looked at civil service and employment matters very seriously,” said Bennett Kayser. “Then Mayor Riordan wanted to get rid of civil service for many groups of city workers. We got lots of input from Riordan’s office and from labor and it became clear to us that civil service is a benefit to the City. That’s why we decided to retain civil service protections in the charter.” 

Labor and neighborhood activist Charley Mims reminded the committee members of the same history: “I was appointed by John Ferraro to the ‘other’ charter commission and we also looked closely at civil service…..Civil Service started in 1883 to move beyond a patronage system that had led to graft and corruption and to the employment of federal workers who didn’t have the qualifications to do the job. It’s a merit system. That means people have to have the ability to do the work and demonstrate that through objective testing both for initial hiring and for promotion. 

“As for the billing system, when I was on the LACERS board and we instituted a new data system, we ran both systems simultaneously for months and months until we knew for certain that the new system worked. Second, the department could have foreseen the need for additional workers.” 

“It’s not an employment problem – this is a management problem,” Mims concluded. 

(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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