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Consumer advocates suggest hunt to choose DWP watchdog is a 'sham process'

Consumer advocates suggest hunt to choose DWP watchdog is a 'sham process'
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building in downtown Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Los Angeles started hunting for a “ratepayer advocate” to scrutinize the Department of Water and Power, Mike Gatto said he was encouraged by several people at City Hall to apply.

Gatto, a former state assemblyman, had headed the Assembly’s Utilities and Commerce Committee in Sacramento and tried to overhaul the California Public Utilities Commission. He submitted his application and in June got an automatic confirmation that it had been received, he said.

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And then?

Nothing, Gatto said.

That alarmed Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has been sharply critical of Fred Pickel, the official who now holds the job.

A letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Controller Ron Galperin, written by Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and consumer advocate Liza Tucker, raised concerns about whether the city was going through a “sham process” engineered to reappoint Pickel and called on Galperin to investigate.

“Consumer Watchdog does not necessarily endorse Gatto,” Court and Tucker wrote, but “the fact that he did not receive as much as a phone call from the committee suggests there is foul play.”

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

Tony Wilkinson, the president of the North Hills East Neighborhood Council who is heading the selection committee, said the panel was involved in a “confidential process,” but that it was “particularly determined to have a thorough vetting process” that was “as rigorous as possible.”

More than 30 people had applied, including candidates from out of state, he said.

“Nobody has been excluded from the process until the final selection is made,” Wilkinson said, although he added that some applicants did not meet the job requirements.

A Galperin spokesman declined to comment on the Consumer Watchdog letter. Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said the committee had conducted an “independent search” that “included extensive public input.”

“Mayor Garcetti respects this independent process, and looks forward to receiving the selection committee's recommendation,” Comisar said in a statement Wednesday.

Pickel, whose initial term ended more than a year and a half ago, has continued to serve on an interim basis during the search.

His tenure as ratepayer advocate has been sharply criticized by Consumer Watchdog and the environmental group Food & Water Watch, which have publicly called for him to be replaced. In its letter to Garcetti and Galperin, Consumer Watchdog argued that the city needed a more aggressive monitor to look into concerns about how the utility is run.

For instance, the group raised concerns in its letter that the DWP was unnecessarily renting “unused” space from the city simply to put income into city coffers. The DWP has disputed that claim, saying that the city property it is renting on Figueroa Street is already 70% occupied, with room intended for jobs for which it is “actively hiring.”

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Criticism has also come from inside City Hall: Councilman Paul Koretz complained this week that Pickel “has generally rubber-stamped everything the city is doing.” Koretz did note that Pickel had raised concerns about the costs of a solar power program, but the councilman said he sharply disagreed with that analysis.

In reaction to criticism, Pickel has pointed back to his reports analyzing topics such as the utility’s budget, rates and electrical reliability, saying that his work speaks for itself.

Jack Humphreville, who heads a committee focused on the DWP that is affiliated with neighborhood councils, said Pickel had done diligent analysis that saved Angelenos money by spurring the department to lower a rate hike request.

The advocate’s job, created after a City Hall clash over rate increases, was meant to “provide public independent analysis of department actions as they relate to water and electricity rates,” according to the City Charter.

But outside consultants who reviewed the management of the DWP three years ago said the role was "stuck in a 'no man's land,' as it is neither a regulator nor a truly independent adviser." Although they did not criticize Pickel personally, the consultants warned that the office faced "continuous political pressure.”

Wilkinson said he hoped that the committee would be able to choose a candidate for the job this month. Under city codes, the City Council and the mayor must confirm its selection.

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