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Environmental and consumer groups call for L.A. to replace its DWP watchdog

Environmental and consumer groups call for L.A. to replace its DWP watchdog
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power headquarters in downtown L.A. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Environmental and consumer groups urged the city Wednesday to pick a new watchdog to monitor the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, arguing that Fred Pickel had failed to fight for the interests of local ratepayers.

Pickel was appointed six years ago to serve as a ratepayer advocate monitoring the DWP, a job that was created by voters after a City Hall clash over rate hikes. His term ended more than a year ago, but he has continued to work on an interim basis while an appointed committee decides who should hold the job.

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At a news conference Wednesday, Consumer Watchdog faulted Pickel for backing rate hikes and supporting a new contract for utility workers that raised salaries, along with other decisions that the nonprofit group argued had ended up costing ratepayers.

It was joined by the environmental group Food and Water Watch, which criticized Pickel for deeming a controversial project to tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta "affordable" for L.A. households.

"No one has stood up for ratepayers when these decisions are being made," said Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court, who has long been critical of Pickel. He argued that Pickel seemed to see his job as "crunching numbers analytically and reporting back to DWP, not standing up for the public against DWP."

Pickel declined to comment specifically Wednesday on the criticisms made by the two groups, saying that he wanted the reports on his website to provide the record of his work.

In the past, he has tracked utility spending and labor costs and recommended changes to speed up utility hiring and contracting, saying that the sluggish pace had caused problems during and after the disastrous rollout of a new billing system.

Jack Humphreville, who sits on a committee that tracks DWP issues for neighborhood councils, argued that Pickel deserves to be reappointed. He said Pickel had been willing to take unpopular stands at City Hall and saved Angelenos money by providing careful analysis that led the department to seek a smaller rate hike than it had initially suggested.

Humphreville said that at times he wished Pickel were more aggressive, but "if he criticized everything they did, they'd shut him out."

More than two years ago, outside consultants who scrutinized the DWP concluded that the ratepayer advocate job was "stuck in a 'no man's land,' as it is neither a regulator nor a truly independent adviser." They did not criticize Pickel personally, but warned that his office faced "continuous political pressure" from city and utility officials.

Besides calling for Pickel to be replaced, Consumer Watchdog argued that the office he leads should be overhauled and given more power to investigate problems within the utility.

City appointees have also been urged by another coalition, which includes community groups, environmentalists and the labor union that represents most DWP employees, to expand the ratepayer advocate role to assess whether programs will improve environmental sustainability, provide good jobs or serve "previously underserved ratepayers."

To decide who should serve as ratepayer advocate, the city has convened a selection committee whose members were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson and Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who heads a council committee focused on energy and environmental issues.

"This is an open and competitive process," said Rafael Prieto, a legislative analyst working with the committee. "It's ultimately up to the committee to decide who they want to recommend."

That committee has not met since December. The group stopped holding meetings after one of its members resigned: Humphreville, who was initially chosen by Wesson as a member of the committee, said he stepped down last year to attend to family issues. Wesson spokeswoman Vanessa Rodriguez said Wednesday that the council president had been reviewing resumes since January and hoped to choose a replacement by the end of the week.

"Once that position is filled, the committee will resume the ratepayer advocate review process," Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said in a written statement.

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The last time Los Angeles chose a ratepayer advocate, it took nearly a year before the city had appointed a committee, gotten its recommendation and made a final decision.

Pickel, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ran his own consulting company, was chosen by that committee and unanimously voted in by the City Council. Garcetti, a councilman at the time, said the public would have "somebody on our side" when the DWP sought rate increases.

"We disagree with these criticisms," Comisar said in a statement Wednesday, in reaction to the Consumer Watchdog statements on Pickel.

Consumer Watchdog has repeatedly taken aim at Pickel in recent years. The ratepayer advocate vouched for a legal settlement over faulty bills that Consumer Watchdog vociferously opposed.

When Pickel penned the official argument in favor of a ballot measure that would have overhauled the way the DWP was governed, Court complained that he had not included that it would also make it easier for him to be reappointed to a second term and double the minimum budget of his small department. That ballot measure ultimately failed.

Twitter: @AlpertReyes

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