After protests from a group of residents worried about city legislators watering down an important aspect of a municipal utility reform effort, the Los Angeles City Council voted Nov. 16 to include funding for the office of an independent monitor for the Department of Water and Power as part of a ballot measure for the March city election.

The council passed a resolution Nov. 9 that included much of what many reformers of the municipal utility are seeking: the creation of a new Office of Accountability, which would act as a watchdog for the public with respect to utility rates and also include an executive director, as well as a change in how the DWP board of directors has been chosen. Currently, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appoints the members of the utility’s board.

The city’s governing body was facing a Nov. 17 deadline to approve any proposals that would be part of the March election slate.

The council was set to approve its list of ballot measures for next year when a group of citizens who have been at the forefront of lobbying for a DWP board restructuring effort took issue with the changes that the council wanted in the reform package. Under the council’s initial recommendation, Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, Villaraigosa’s top budget analyst, would have been in charge of funding the new accountability office instead of budgeting a fixed amount of funds for its operations.

Chuck Ray, a Mar Vista resident who has been a neighborhood leader for the independent watchdog office, took issue with the last minute alteration of the council motion.

“An appointee of the mayor is being asked to oversee the DWP’s piggy bank,” he argued. “That doesn’t seem right to me.”

After Ray and others objected to Santana being put in charge of the independent monitor’s funding, the council decided to compromise and remove the CAO from the equation.

“I think now that the Office of Accountability will be independent,” said Ray, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Office of Accountability will now see guaranteed funding at a minimum of 0.025 percent of revenues, according to the proposal.

Ray called the suggestion to permit Santana to be in charge of funding the proposed watchdog office a “poison pill,” which he said would have taken the independence away from the ratepayer advocate. He had pledged to lobby against the ballot measure if it had been submitted with Santana being responsible for the independent monitor’s funding.

Villaraigosa has stated that he believes in the changes that have been proposed for the DWP but is against a ballot initiative to implement them. The mayor can veto the projected measure as it is being written before Dec. 30. Calls to his office for comment were unreturned.

The labor union that represents the DWP, IBEW 18, took out full page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times Nov. 12 after the council approved the items that it wanted to see on the March ballot. “City Charter amendments require a studied and deliberative process, not a deadline driven bottleneck,” the ad from a group called Working Californians states.

Yvette Martinez, the spokeswoman for Working Californians, claimed the organization has not taken a position on the DWP measure or any of the other ballot propositions. “Right now, we’re in the process of reviewing them,” Martinez told The Argonaut.

The reform measure was presented at the November meeting of the Westside Regional Alliance of Councils, a coalition of elected members from the city’s neighborhood councils.

“We’ve taken a preliminary look at this,” Mike Newhouse, the committee’s chair, said. “We will be considering a motion on the proposed measure at our Dec. 15 meeting.”

Reforming the public utility has been on the horizon for several months as the level of animosity has grown between the council and the DWP board since spring. City Councilwoman Jan Perry joined Councilmen Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti at a September meeting in Mar Vista where they heard complaints about the DWP and calls for a ratepayer advocate.

All three elected leaders have spoken publicly about the need to lessen the utility’s power since a spring showdown where the DWP board refused to transfer over $70 million to the city at the height of the budget crisis.

City Controller Wendy Greuel launched an audit following the confrontation with the council. In addition to asserting that the board’s attempt to withhold $73 million was “extortion,” the audit also found what many consider to be a dearth of accountability and secrecy at DWP.

“This audit is clear; there needs to be greater transparency at the DWP. The insulated culture and the lack of accountability in the department must change,” the report states. “The DWP has lost the trust of the public through this debacle and it will require dramatic steps over the coming months and years to rebuild the confidence of the ratepayers.”

Perry echoed Ray in her belief that the ratepayer advocate has to be viewed as an office that has no political ties to City Hall in order to receive the public’s support.

“It’s important not to have it affiliated directly with the city,” she said.

Perry said the initial council recommendation to have the Office of Accountability’s funding at Santana’s discretion was the product of a continuing council discussion on DWP reform, but ultimately she thinks the right decision was made.

“The more independent it appears, the better it’s going to look to the public,” the councilwoman said.

Mark Redick, a past president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, has been unabashed and unrelenting in his criticism of the DWP. He views the board’s claims to the council cited in Greuel’s audit as one of the turning points in pushing the city’s leaders to move toward changing the composition of its board.

“To stand before an elected city body and lie is unconscionable,” Redick asserted. “This underscores the undermining of the credibility of a major public agency at City Hall.”

After its December meeting, the coalition of neighborhood councils will apprise the 13 Westside neighborhood councils of the results of its vote. Pursuant to alliance bylaws, if two-thirds, or nine of the local councils, support its decision, that finding will become the group’s official decision.

In addition to the ratepayer advocate, the manner in which the board is chosen will also be subject to change. Instead of the mayor appointing the board members, an independent citizens commission will choose them.

A prior suggestion would have given the mayor, the council and four citizen representatives, some of which would have been from neighborhood councils, the right to appoint members to the board.

Perry called the insertion of the citizens commission “an interesting addition” to the reform initiative. “It’s a way for actively involved members of the public to participate in the process,” she said.

Ray thanked the council members, especially Rosendahl, for sending the public utility a unified message that they want the DWP to change its ways.

“Now the real work begins,” he said, referring to the four-month campaign to convince the electorate to back the ballot measure.

Perry thinks that due to the way that the measure was crafted along with the public standoff with the DWP, the proposal will be successful.

“I think it has a very strong chance of passing,” the councilwoman said. “There is a great level of concern about water rates as well as renewable energy.”

Ray feels there is momentum behind the initiative, but he believes the union will pull out all the stops between now and March to defeat it. “How much force will come from the other side is the question,” he said.

In addition to the DWP reform measure, another 10 ballot propositions will be part of the March election, including a proposal to tax oil producers and medical marijuana dispensaries and a new pension plan for new public safety hires.