Last year an independent consulting firm hired by the city controller repeated a longstanding criticism of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The nation’s largest municipal utility is hamstrung because managers face too many bureaucratic hurdles and answer to multiple layers of political bosses with competing agendas, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, his appointees on the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and the City Council. There are lots of overseers, but none of them is ultimately accountable when things go wrong.
The proof is in the controversies the DWP has faced in recent years: The botched rollout of a computerized billing system that resulted in a $44-million class action settlement; questionable spending of tens of millions of dollars by ratepayer-funded nonprofit groups associated with the department's powerful union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18; and the maintenance failures that caused giant water main leaks like the one that flooded the UCLA campus in 2014.
The solution, the consultant concluded, was to amend the city charter to give the DWP clear lines of authority, oversight and accountability. But if Los Angeles voters are looking for a ballot measure that will magically transform the DWP into an efficient, reliable, modern, customer-friendly public utility, Measure RRR is not it. Calling RRR a DWP reform measure is an overstatement. So is calling it a “power grab,” as opponents have done.
In reality, Measure RRR is more like a series of tweaks to the management and oversight of the DWP. Some are necessary and common-sense changes to help the general manager operate the utility more efficiently, and can be done only by voter approval. Some are incremental changes that may or may not help streamline operations. And some are window dressings that make the measure seem more consequential than it is. On balance, though, Measure RRR has enough helpful changes to make it worthwhile, and voters should pass it.
The measure includes several changes that are supposed to empower the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and make it more independent from City Hall. But RRR offers a watered-down version of empowerment, so it’s hard to tell how much it will help.
The measure would expand the Board of Water and Power Commissioners from five seats to seven seats; shorten the terms from five years to four; and require board members to have certain qualifications, such as experience in utility management, water or power issues, environmental policy, labor relations or community organizing. The idea is to ensure a level of expertise on the board, which would be a welcome upgrade as long as the qualifications aren’t used to guarantee seats on the board for special interests.
The mayor would still appoint board members. But he would no longer have the unilateral authority to remove them; commissioners could appeal their firing to the City Council, which could reinstate them with a two-thirds vote. This added job security could give commissioners more freedom to make politically difficult decisions.
Measure RRR also would give the board authority to hire analysts and approve contracts without needing advance approval from the City Council. More significantly, it would grant the board more freedom to set water and power rates within the limits of a four-year strategic plan approved by the mayor and council. This approach could force policymakers to recognize and approve the costs of their policies, and, one would hope, avoid the customary mistake of postponing needed rate hikes only to hit customers with big increases later.
The most controversial aspect of the measure is one that doesn’t actually change anything. The DWP would be allowed to begin negotiating an exit from the city’s civil service system, which would give it more control over whom it hires, fires and promotes. To the unions that represent most city employees, this provision smacks of an effort by the rival DWP workers’ union to grab power over the hiring process, paving the way for cronyism and nepotism. But Measure RRR just opens the door to bargaining. Any actual changes would take a City Council vote, which would undoubtedly prompt an epic political battle.
In an ideal world, voters would have an ambitious ballot measure that creates a less political, more efficient DWP. In the real world, DWP reform will be a slow process of small changes. Measure RRR moves the utility a few steps in the right direction, and it’s worth supporting.