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Riding the public gravy train

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If you're looking for work in this rotten economy, I've got a tip:

Run, don't walk, to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and apply for anything they've got.

A reader sent me a posting for an executive secretary position at the DWP, and the salary range is $68,089 to $97,864, with great benefits.

"A good secretary is worth her weight in gold," said my e-mailer. "Only in the Los Angeles DWP do they take that quite literally."

I like that line, but does a DWP executive secretary make more than his or her counterparts in other city departments?

Absolutely, and it isn't even close.

I checked with the personnel department and found that the same position in other city departments starts at $54,000 and ranges up to $72,000.

Top pay, in other words, is $25,000 more at the DWP, and the gravy train is not limited to secretaries.

A DWP custodian can make $50,000, compared to $36,000 in other departments. A DWP gardener tops out at $56,000, versus $46,000.

And it gets even better for the utility's employees.

Today, as my colleague David Zahniser tells me, the L.A. City Council is expected to approve a five-year deal for DWP employees that includes a bonus the first year and raises every year thereafter.

Did you just spit coffee on yourself?

If so, my apologies.

How could such a raise be justified when the state is in the midst of a ghastly fiscal crisis, unemployment is off the charts, cops have just been denied a raise and there's a humongous budget shortfall at City Hall?

It doesn't have to be justified. It's just the way things work in a bureaucracy controlled by the likes of Brian D'Arcy, the feared head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, which represents thousands of DWP employees. Any politician who wishes to belly up to the public trough, and stay there, wants to keep the powerful union boss happy.

In my new Talk Back feature on The Times' website, I asked readers Tuesday what they thought of the DWP raises, as well as a proposal by Los Angeles County supervisors to study a possible rehab of the Hall of Justice, where repairs for earthquake damage have been estimated at $100 million.

Readers went on a rampage.

"As a city of L.A. employee, subject to a 12% pay decrease due to forced Furlough Days (2 per month), I am having to put my home up for sale because I just cannot afford my mortgage; despite my frugal existence," RG wrote. "To see that DWP is opting for pay raises is very disheartening, to say the least."

"Looks like they get paid for every water main break," Da Maverick wrote.

But readers had more than just a couple of civic center targets in their sights.

"Oh, Steve, what about [L.A. County Supervisor Mark] Ridley-Thomas' $170,000 office remodel?" asked Diane W. "In times like this? APPALLING! Shameful! Nauseating and Disgusting!"

There was just one problem with Diane W.'s e-mail.

It wasn't a $170,000 remodeling job. As first reported by KABC-TV Channel 7, it was a $707,000 remodeling job.

That, by the way, is twice the cost of two median-priced homes in L.A. County.

"To work in an environment that's decent is part of what it means to keep people motivated," Ridley-Thomas told KABC.

They need new carpets to get motivated? I'd show them the unemployment numbers, and see if that motivates them.

Ridley-Thomas told me the $707,000 has been approved but not yet spent, so he'll look for cost savings as the project proceeds. He also said his office is cramped, has code violations and isn't as nice as those of his colleagues. I offered to come check it out, and he said he'd have to think about it.

I was in that office when it was occupied by former Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, and I don't recall that it was in any better or worse shape than the others. Even if it were overdue for upgrades, isn't that something you put on hold, spending the money instead on programs that will help your suffering constituents?

Naturally, the other supervisors approved the expense, as did the county executive, because Rule No. 1 at that back-slapping factory is to never ruffle feathers.

On another matter, Ridley-Thomas has refused The Times' requests for records of communication between his office and an associate "who has been employed by corporations that do millions of dollars of business with the county and a rail project that Ridley-Thomas helps oversee," as The Times reported.

But in his defense, he might have been busy picking fabric.

I probably should call Burke and see what she makes of Ridley-Thomas knocking her old office. I've been meaning to call, anyway, because we haven't spoken since I asked why she didn't appear to be living in the district she represented as a supervisor.

Not that it kept Burke from being named to a House ethics panel that was looking into Rep. Laura Richardson (D- Long Beach) and how she managed to pull her run-down Sacramento house out of foreclosure after it appeared someone else had bought it. Richardson, at the time, had defaulted six times on two houses in Long Beach and San Pedro.

This is why I don't write about local politics every day. You turn over a rock, worms wiggle out, you follow them to another rock, more worms wiggle out.

For instance, I'm hoping to have a talk with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa before he leaves for the climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, about his pal Elliott Broidy, a venture capitalist who the mayor appointed to the Fire and Police Pensions board.

Broidy pleaded guilty last week to what New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo called "an old-fashioned payoff" involving $1 million in gifts to that state's pension officials.

OK, let's think about this: In New York, he had to pay off pension officials. In L.A., he was one.

And I have another question for the mayor: Is he going to mention at the climate conference that he appointed a deputy mayor for transportation whose vehicle of choice was a Hummer?

Oh, what a tangled web.

On a slightly cheerier note -- but I'll let you be the judge -- I did get a nice holiday card from Supervisor Mike Antonovich, complete with eight Bible quotations and a claim that no taxpayer funds were used in the mailing. Included in Antonovich's annual roundup was this nugget: "Our two miniature doxie dogs, Angel and Popcorn are well and happy."

Call me a tough guy, but I was trained to take no one's word for anything. So I'll check with the dogs and get back to you.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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