Four members of the Los Angeles City Council recently joined Westside residents at a public hearing on a reform effort for the city Department of Water and Power that could become a ballot initiative early next year.

Eleventh District City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and three of his colleagues, Eric Garcetti, Janice Hahn and Jan Perry, took part in a panel discussion Sept. 7 at the Mar Vista Recreation Center, where constituents from across the district expressed the need for a ratepayer advocate who would act as a monitor of the utility company in the public’s interest.

Rosendahl said the time has come for a consumer advocate due to the poor perception that the public has regarding the DWP.

“The frustration of our constituents is at an all-time high, and there’s a question of integrity and transparency at DWP,” Rosendahl said. “I’m a big believer in an independent rate advocate, a watchdog for the public.”

Plans for a March 2011 ballot initiative for the public advocate were discussed at length by numerous speakers at the forum and backed by the four council members.

The topic of last April’s standoff between the nation’s largest unregulated utility and the city’s governing body was a recurring theme during and after the community meeting. DWP claimed that it could not transfer $73.5 million to the city’s coffers unless it was granted a rate hike, which it planned to pass on to its consumers. The council balked until DWP agreed to a smaller increase and then released the money to the council, which was grappling with a $212 million deficit.

City Controller Wendy Gruel chastised DWP officials for claiming that transferring the money to the city would have placed the utility company in fiscal jeopardy.

“It’s hard to look at these numbers and not say that the DWP was trying to extort the City Council into passing its proposed Energy Cost Adjustment Factor increase,” Greuel said.

Rosendahl agreed.

“We felt that this was extortion,” Rosendahl, a member of the council’s budget and finance committee, said of the utility’s argument for a rate increase before releasing the funds to the city. “It validates everything that we said in April about the DWP withholding this money unless we agreed to a raise in the fees that my constituents would be paying.”

Mark Redick, who addressed the four council members, said after the hearing that it was imperative to have an independent voice for the public because DWP can no longer be trusted.

“The board of commissioners of DWP and its management have treated their positions as a catered affair with no accountability or responsibility,” Redick, who resides in Del Rey, claimed. “DWP reform is not an option at this point; it’s a requirement.”

Garcetti said he had a good feeling about the proposal making the March municipal ballot.

“I’m very confident,” the council president told The Argonaut. “There is an overwhelming, if not unanimous presence on the council to put this on the ballot, and the public is clamoring for this.”

An additional proposal, suggested by Redick last spring and later by Councilman Greig Smith, includes a revamping of the manner in which the board of commissioners is chosen. Currently, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has sole authority in selecting the board.

The suggested method of choosing the way that the board of commissioners is selected would give the mayor two appointees and allow the council two selections, as well as a member of one of the city’s 91 neighborhood councils.

Redick thinks the two reforms should be done simultaneously.

“It has to be coupled with a change in the composition of the board,” Redick, a former Del Rey Neighborhood Council president, insisted. “And the role of the advocate must be clearly defined, because otherwise, that could lead to political opportunism, and we need to eliminate that.”

Garcetti thinks DWP management is aware of the public’s animosity and its desire for changes in how the utility is structured, including the addition of a ratepayer advocate.

“I think they’ve embraced the idea that something is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said. “But I want to make sure that (the implementation of a public advocate) does not get decided by bureaucrats behind closed doors in a closed room. This has to happen openly and it has to be put on the ballot before the voters.

“We won’t reestablish trust if it comes straight out of (the DWP) and they say, ‘Trust us,’” Garcetti added. “So I embrace what they are doing in saying the right things, but anything that stops short of putting this on the ballot I would be 100 percent against.”

Perry echoed Garcetti’s remarks about the importance of regaining the public’s confidence in the water and power utility, and she says a ballot proposition to create that ratepayer advocate could be the cure.

“I think that a pathway is needed toward establishing confidence and trust again in the DWP,” she said. “It could also be a direct pipeline of information and advocacy to and from the ratepayer.”

Mar Vista resident Chuck Ray, who has monitored the DWP and its rate increases for several years, said he was pleased that the council appeared to be taking the need for a ratepayer representative seriously.

“When I went to a meeting (in August), I felt a little uneasy that they would turn it over to the city’s chief administrative officer and that we would have something constructed in a back room,” he said. “What they assured us of (at the Mar Vista hearing) is that they will continue to keep control of it so that the policy decisions will be made by the council with the advice and consent of neighborhood councils and business people, and I think that’s fair.”

Garcetti said he was not as concerned about getting the proposition before the voters as he was making certain that any initiative was properly worded.

“I don’t think the issue is if we get it on (the ballot) or if it passes; I think it’s making sure that it’s designed right,” he asserted. “We have to think long-term; how we make it accountable, and how do we make sure that it doesn’t get captured by any politician or any bureaucracy.

“That’s why I wanted this to be an open process and that’s why we’re going from neighborhood to neighborhood to get the public’s reaction.”

Perry said the “machinations” of the DWP would not likely require city officials to raise money or campaign heavily for the new position.

“Over the last year they made the case for us,” the councilwoman said. “What we have to do is make sure that the ballot language is well considered and is a reflection of people’s concerns.”

Ray, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, stated that some residents might think the sole purpose of a ratepayer representative would be to keep electricity rates low.

“We hope that we keep control of the rates, but we are being forced by environmental rules and the aging infrastructure to spend more money,” Ray noted. “We have to spend more money to accommodate the changes in the law so the rates have to go up in the short term.”

Rosendahl, whose council district includes Mar Vista, believes the utility’s actions in April created a groundswell of public outrage against the DWP and convinced many of his colleagues that they had to take their own actions on behalf of their constituents.

“It was an arrogance that was unfounded, and for many of us that was the last straw,” the councilman acknowledged. “My constituents are engaged in all of the issues of the city, and this is one that they totally get.”

Ray said the media’s coverage of the acrimonious battle of wills between city officials and DWP gave the public a glimpse of how the utility had allegedly manipulated the fiscal municipal crisis to leverage a rate increase.

“This kind of fight should have never happened,” he said. “This is the largest utility in the country that is unregulated. We’re not asking for the sun and the moon.”

Calls to DWP Executive Director Austin Beutner were not returned by press time.

Garcetti was impressed by the turnout in Mar Vista.

“This was an amazing meeting. It was very vibrant, with a lot of intelligent comments, very well-informed and very passionate,” he said. “You can’t ask for more in a democracy.”

Rosendahl said the council is anticipating having ballot language constructed by Nov. 3 for the city attorney’s review so that the proposal could qualify for the March ballot.