A group of reform-minded citizens and Los Angeles city leaders were the driving forces to get an ordinance on the March 8 municipal ballot that will restructure the nation’s second largest public utility.
Now the campaign to explain why they lobbied for this reform effort of the Department of Water and Power will soon begin in earnest.
Groups supporting the ballot initiative will be visiting neighborhood groups and discussing the creation of a ratepayer advocate in as many public forums as possible during February, said Chuck Ray, a Mar Vista homeowner who has been one of the driving forces to have the ordinance placed on the ballot.
“It’s a very low level campaign,” said Ray, the vice chair of a joint oversight committee of neighborhood councils and the DWP.
The Mar Vista Community Council will dedicate approximately half of its Feb. 8 meeting to the ballot propositions at the Mar Vista Recreation Center.
The City Council voted unanimously Nov. 2 to have City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office craft language for a ballot initiative that would give ratepayers a watchdog over the utility board of commissioners, a plan that some neighborhood council advocates and some city legislators have been clamoring for over the last two years. Two weeks later, the council approved a series of voter initiatives, including the ratepayer advocate proposal, for the March ballot.
The initiative would allow for the creation of an executive director for the office of accountability, which will function as an advocate for DWP customers. The executive director would be appointed by a nine-member citizens commission. The mayor’s office, the City Council and the neighborhood councils each would appoint three members to the commission.
Other proposed changes that were dropped included expanding the number of DWP commissioners from five to seven, shortening the length of their terms on the board and reducing the number of mayoral appointees on the commission.
The DWP is the nation’s largest municipally owned utility, and has an annual budget of about $4 billion. It has 9,000 employees and 1.4 million customers.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa claims to back reform efforts of the city agency but some believe that he has been lukewarm toward the proposition that would create the taxpayer watchdog. On Dec. 23, he vetoed a proposed ballot measure that would have granted the City Council the authority to remove the head of the DWP.
The proposal enjoys support from three members of the Los Angeles City Council, including Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District.
Denny Schneider, a Westchester homeowner, said the office of accountability is necessary to prevent expensive programs from the agency as well as deny the city funds during a budget crisis.
“The ratepayer advocate is an important, needed addition to the controls over DWP,” he asserted. “In recent times, DWP has attempted to impose a very expensive Measure B that would push solar power use in an non-cost effective way, tried to blackmail ‘payments’ to the city general fund, and has pushed through countless unjustified rate increases.”
Measure B was a 2009 proposition backed by the DWP that sought to create a city ordinance to install 400 megawatts of solar panels around Los Angeles. It narrowly lost, 50.5 percent to 49.5.
Schneider was referring to last spring’s showdown between the council and the utility, when its board refused to release $73.5 million unless the council acquiesced to a rate increase.
The city’s governing body eventually agreed to a smaller rate hike and DWP transferred the money to the city’s general fund. That event was a watershed moment for many on the council, including Rosendahl.
“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 thinks new DWP General Manager Ron Nichols will not be an obstacle to the proposition’s campaign.
“After meeting with him, I got the impression that he was someone that we could work with,” Ray said. “I’m strongly in favor of him.”
Nichols’ predecessor, former DWP General Manager Austin Beutner, had argued against the reform measure. He told the council that he did not see the need for a ballot proposition.
Mark Redick, a Del Rey resident who has been an unabashed critic of the DWP board, said the time of the public utility operating as a “catered affair” should come to an end.
“This ballot proposition has the potential to draw back the curtain of secrecy from a public agency,” said Redick, a former Del Rey Neighborhood Council president. “The key to this process and the success of this measure is going to be based on community education.”
Ray believes the measure has a good chance to pass, even though it will be during an off-year election, when turnout is typically very small. “So far, there is no organized opposition and there is no official argument against it,” he noted.
On Nov. 13, a political organization that was created by the locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents DWP employees, paid for full page advertisements in two daily newspapers cautioning voters on the package of proposed ballot initiatives.
“City Charter amendments require a studied and deliberative process, not a deadline driven bottleneck,” stated an advertisement from Working Californians.
Yvette Martinez, the spokeswoman for Working Californians, or representatives from the union did not return calls for comment.
Rosendahl agrees that the proposition has a very good chance of passage due to the efforts of Ray and others, despite the typical low turnout in odd numbered election years.
“Since I have been in office I have not appreciated the fact that we have (city) elections in off years,” he said. “I have always felt that we should have them in even numbered years, like the presidential election.
“That said, I believe that my constituents, who take a deep interest in community affairs, will vote,” the councilman continued. “This is a huge step in the right direction for transparency.”
Councilwoman Jan Perry and City Council President Eric Garcetti have also expressed support and optimism that the initiative will be successful.
Rosendahl also likes the idea of neighborhood leaders having input into who will be on the citizens commission.
“(Neighborhood councils) have taken a deep interest in this and I’m very sympathetic to neighborhood councils having a role in this,” the councilman said.
Schneider said having a ratepayer watchdog would not be anything that is out of the ordinary for public utilities. “Public power companies in California have an extensive force watching them called the Public Utilities Commission and we need equal protections,” he noted.
Redick said the ballot initiative is the best way to make sure that the utility is working in the public’s best interest.
“This is not about the DWP; this is a referendum on reform,” he said. “We will shine the light of truth on each and every one (of the DWP commissioners) with this reform effort.”
If the measure passes, it would be considered as an amendment to the city charter.
Calls to the DWP were not returned at press time.