The Los Angeles City Council is expected to confirm Marcie Edwards, Mayor Eric Garcetti's pick to head the Department of Water and Power, on Friday. In many ways, Edwards seems to be the ideal candidate for the general manager's job. She's both an insider — having worked at the DWP for 24 years, starting as a clerk typist and rising to assistant general manager — and an outsider, because she subsequently ran Anaheim Public Utilities for 13 years. She has deep knowledge of the electricity and water business, as well as experience in the unique political environment of a city-owned utility.
Edwards would take the helm at a particularly rough time for the DWP. Managers are still working through the problems caused by the new $160-million customer service system that sent out inflated bills last fall, prompting a flood of phone inquiries that overwhelmed the underprepared call center. The DWP also needs to modernize its aging water and electricity delivery systems. At the same time, it must invest in renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in order to fulfill state and city requirements, and must invest in water recycling to deal with future shortages.
As if those challenges weren't enough, Edwards would join the DWP just as Garcetti is taking on the entrenched political power of Brian D'Arcy, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, the union representing most DWP employees. Its political action committee bankrolled Garcetti's opponent in the election, a miscalculation that has given the mayor unusually free rein to challenge the union's disproportionate influence in DWP operations. The general manager's position is a tricky one because he or she has to work with the union, answer to the mayor and appease the City Council, which still includes many D'Arcy allies.
The real question isn't whether Edwards is qualified to lead the DWP. It's whether she, or anybody, can navigate the inherent political and bureaucratic minefields. To smooth the way, the mayor and City Council should look at releasing their grip on the DWP by making it more independent. They could do this by returning to the former model of governance in which the Board of Water and Power Commissioners had primary oversight of the utility, and the general manager reported to an empowered board. Although the commissioners were appointed by the mayor, they served staggered five-year terms and couldn't be removed without council approval; today, by contrast, the mayor has unilateral authority to appoint and oust them. The earlier system gave the commission the freedom to make decisions for the utility without being subject to shifting political winds, and gave the general manager a needed buffer from City Hall.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times