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Garcetti names new DWP head, dismisses senior official

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Thursday stepped up his effort to overhaul the leadership of the city's much-criticized municipal utility and curb the influence of its powerful employees' union by nominating a new agency boss and dismissing a top-ranking executive.

Garcetti nominated Anaheim City Manager Marcie Edwards to take charge of the Department of Water and Power, which has been struggling to manage a series of controversies over spending and customer service.

Edwards, who ran Anaheim's utility and previously worked at the DWP for more than two decades, was picked because she has the experience to run one of the nation's largest municipal utilities like a business and the toughness to "take on the status quo at the DWP," Garcetti said.

"During the mayor's race, L.A. voters gave me a mandate to reform the DWP, and with Marcie Edwards, we're going to make sure the DWP is more efficient," Garcetti told reporters at the utility's downtown headquarters. After taking office in July, Garcetti initiated a new study of agency salaries and how they compare to workers at other utilities.

Two years ago, city consultants reported that DWP workers were receiving significantly more pay than their counterparts in the industry. A Times analysis last year found that DWP employees are paid roughly 50% more than workers at other city agencies.

Edwards, who must be confirmed by the DWP Board of Commissioners and City Council, would be the first woman to run the DWP. She has deep roots at the department: Her father and grandfather worked there, and she started her career at the DWP as a clerk typist at the age of 19. She was the first woman to hold several job titles as she worked her way up the department ladder, Garcetti said.

If confirmed, Edwards will replace General Manager Ron Nichols, who announced his resignation earlier this month. Garcetti had publicly voiced a desire for Nichols to be more aggressive with the DWP union, notably in the administration's effort to determine how two utility-funded nonprofit trusts have spent more than $40 million in ratepayer money.

During his three-year tenure, Nichols was a co-director of the nonprofits with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, Business Manager Brian D'Arcy. Nichols has said that he could not provide detailed financial records to the mayor's office without D'Arcy's consent, and that D'Arcy threatened to sue him personally if the records were made public.

On Thursday, Edwards said she would support the mayor's efforts to make the documents public and cut off the nonprofits' money "until we can account for the activities and spending."

Also on Thursday, Senior Assistant General Manager Aram Benyamin was placed on administrative leave. A 33-year veteran of the department, Benyamin was in charge of the utility's massive power grid, and one of two senior assistants who report to the general manager.

Benyamin was considered a close management ally of D'Arcy, who strongly backed Garcetti's opponent in last year's mayoral campaign.

Benyamin said he was given no explanation for his removal. Asked if he thought it was due to his ties to the union chief, he said, "I grew up with Brian D'Arcy, I came up through the ranks of the IBEW. If that's the reason, I'm proud of that."

Mayoral spokesman Jeff Millman declined to comment directly on the reasons for Benyamin's removal, saying only that Garcetti "wants new leadership to reform the DWP. More changes are likely in the future."

Benyamin said he plans to exercise an option to go back to the DWP Civil Service job he had before rising to the executive offices. "I've been there 33 years. I don't think I've taken a single day off," he said. "I'm not planning on retiring."

He also has served as a trustee of the nonprofit training and safety institutes that have been resisting attempts by Garcetti's DWP commissioners and the city controller to get a detailed accounting of how the nonprofits have used tens of millions of dollars in public money since 2000.

The battle over the records began in September after The Times reported that DWP officials had only scant information documenting how the nonprofits were spending up to $4 million a year.

D'Arcy has fought efforts to get the records, including a subpoena from City Controller Ron Galperin, arguing that the institutes are not subject to state public records laws.

The controversy escalated Tuesday when the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said its prosecutors and investigators were also seeking the nonprofits' records to determine if any crimes had been committed.

Edwards would take over an agency that is also trying to fix a new, $162-million computerized billing system that sent as many as 70,000 late or inaccurate bills to customers in recent months.

In addition, city officials say that the agency will soon have to make the case for raising customer rates to fulfill city obligations to replenish water supplies in the Owens Valley and increase the amount of power obtained from renewable sources, among other things.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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