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Accountability and the DWP

L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson wants the public to weigh in on a proposed DWP union contract.
A public airing of labor contract terms is rare, but it's a good idea to let ratepayers get their say.

It is to Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson's credit that he scheduled a hearing Friday for the public to weigh in on a proposed contract for the union representing most Department of Water and Power employees. That's true even if the negotiations have been completed, the contract is virtually a done deal and the hearings themselves are part of a political tug-of-war between Mayor Eric Garcetti, who correctly demands more union concessions, and the council.

A public airing of labor contract terms is rare, to say the least, but it's a good idea to let ratepayers — who are, after all, a party to the deal because they will be paying the bills — get their say. It's a good idea to let the council members hear it so that they will proceed with the public's words in their ears.

It's also a good idea not to overdo the praise. Although Wesson acknowledges his role in the process, this labor negotiation follows a well-marked path that in the past has allowed pretty much every other elected official to deny responsibility for the outcome.

In years past, contracts with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 often seemed to expire in election years, be negotiated with a departing mayor in office and be up for ratification just as a new mayor was elected but before he took office — so before he appointed his own members to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, which must also ratify the deal. And before he decided to keep, or replace, the city administrative officer, who has a lead role in the talks. In the past, the board has even been told it had no authority to say "no," and the council has been assured it would be threatened with a lawsuit if it dared to question the terms. In other words, if they just went along, every elected official got to walk away without any fingerprints on the deal.

This time, again, the negotiation began under the former regime, and the mayor, again, has yet to make his own appointments to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. Still, he's sticking with his position that the city needs a better deal, especially in the wake of Controller Ron Galperin's report Thursday that DWP workers earn on average 17% above their salaries based on various side letters and extra-pay categories in their union contract.

In the end, the new contract's terms may be good for the city's financial bottom line, and that's no small thing. But it's also not the only thing. Residents and ratepayers deserve to know who they can hold accountable for their utility. And they deserve to know whether the city runs the DWP, or whether it's the other way around.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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