L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti promises improved customer service at DWP

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has infuriated customers with its billing screw-ups, long telephone wait times and unfettered spending.

After winning the Los Angeles mayor’s race in 2013, Eric Garcetti vowed to overhaul the agency, promising more oversight and better service at the nation’s largest government-run utility.

On that front, he’s relied on performance yardsticks to track DWP progress and brought in new hires. He also backed an unsuccessful ballot measure last fall that would have overhauled the utility.

On Tuesday, Garcetti took a different approach in his DWP reform campaign. He reached back more than 200 years and evoked the Founding Fathers by unveiling a DWP customer “bill of rights.”

The mayor’s “bill of rights” plan, which comes two months before he faces reelection, offers ratepayer guarantees, such as a $25 rebate in some billing error cases. But the proposal includes practices already in place at the agency, drawing criticism from DWP watchdogs.

The “bill of rights” also doesn’t ensure ratepayers any legal protections, according to the document’s fine print.

As news cameras zoomed in on an oversized “bill of rights” poster -- a prop modeled after a yellowed 18th century scroll — at Tuesday’s news conference, Garcetti said the document would “ensure the highest level of service.”

“Today we’re taking one of our most important steps,” Garcetti said.

The dozens of proposals are scheduled to go into effect Feb. 1, the mayor said. The DWP Board of Commissioners will vote on the plan, but approval by the Los Angeles City Council is not required.

Some of Garcetti’s proposals already exist. For instance, the proposal states defective meters will be replaced within 90 days of first being reported or discovered by the DWP.

DWP spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa said that defective water meters, on average, are currently being replaced within 60 days of being discovered or reported. Defective electric meters are replaced with 90 days, she said.

Garcetti’s proposal states wait times for callers to the DWP won’t exceed three minutes, on average. However, wait times have been under three minutes for the last 16 months at the department, Garcetti said. 

In a statement, Garcetti spokesman Carl Marziali said, “The bill of rights is intended to formalize reforms and policies for future ratepayers. Some, like the reduction in call wait times, started before the bill.”

The mayor’s emphasis on customer improvement comes as opponents in the March 7 mayoral election are likely to focus on his record with the DWP.  Already, Mitchell Schwartz, one challenger, has released his own plan for reforming the utility. 

The consumer group J.D. Power & Associates ranked the utility last among large Western power providers in its 2016 annual customer satisfaction survey. Another J.D. Power survey on water providers released last year ranked the DWP near the bottom.

Separately, the DWP owes its customers at least $66.7 million in refunds and credits after faulty software led to widespread overbilling.

Under Garcetti's proposal, questions sent to the DWP via email would receive a response within 24 hours, or one business day. Recent response times have been 48 hours, Figueroa said.

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Other proposed policies state that bills that exceed three times the average historic use for the same billing period will automatically be reviewed. Customers with a bill that is three times their average historic billing period use because of an inaccurate meter reading will receive a $25 bill credit. Additionally, the bill will be corrected.

Customers would have to apply to receive the credits, according to Garcetti’s proposal.

Steve Erie, professor emeritus of political science UC San Diego, said there are a lot of “gray areas” and questioned whether the plan would change public perceptions of the DWP.

“I don’t think $25 service credits are really going to mollify angry customers,” Erie said.

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith

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A previous version of this article stated that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed “bill of rights” for Department of Water and Power customers needed approval by the City Council before taking effect Feb. 1. The DWP Board of Commissioners will vote on the plan, but no City Council approval is needed.
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