If the Los Angeles City Council approves a measure on Friday, city voters will be asked to transfer oversight of the Department of Water and Power from the council to the DWP Board of Commissioners and let the agency hire from outside the Civil Service system. DWP certainly has its problems — but these are misguided solutions.
Los Angeles weighed giving DWP more autonomy from the city once before. Almost 20 years ago, the commissioners charged with rewriting the city charter looked at similar options, including privatizing the utility. As chairman of the Elected Charter Reform Commission, I fought hard then to keep DWP part of city government so that it would stay accountable to the public on rates and services. The decision also meant that DWP’s Civil Service employment system remained intact.
That choice was quickly validated. With the state’s energy industry just deregulated, in 2000-2001 other parts of California suffered price spikes, power shortages and blackouts because of the profit-seeking decisions of private utility companies. DWP’s 1.4 million electric customers were spared. More recently, the drought has spurred Angelenos to scrutinize their water bills — and they find average bills lower than San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Monica or Pasadena.
Still, by all accounts, customers today are not enamored of the DWP. It is widely seen as poorly managed because of a botched switch to a new billing system, poor customer service, rate increases that appear unrelated to actual costs, and an aging infrastructure badly in need of upgrades.
Such problems point to failures at the top levels of management. And that argues for greater City Council oversight, not less.
In the name of reform, however, the City Council proposes to have the DWP Board of Commissioners set water and power prices and abdicate its oversight role. It would also elevate the commissioners’ jobs to full-time, paid positions (they are currently volunteer appointments) that require industry expertise – a good idea. But why wouldn’t the council want to retain final decision-making power? Monitoring of the DWP by elected officials is vital to protecting consumers and ensuring sufficient revenue for the operation and infrastructure needs of the whole system.
Separating DWP’s hiring from the city’s Civil Service system is problematic too. The city of Los Angeles is a single employer and the DWP just one of its many departments. Employees can transfer among departments, depending on their skills and the city’s needs, through the city’s Civil Service system. This gives workers access to new opportunities throughout city government and helps the city deploy its talented employees to maximum benefit.
The Civil Service also provides objective procedures for hiring and promotion so that city jobs aren’t handed out as patronage. It was introduced in the city of Los Angeles in 1903 to counter a flagrant system of political spoils. In 1939, after the recall of Mayor Frank L. Shaw for corruption, the Civil Service system was overhauled and strengthened into a nationally recognized model of honesty and professionalism.
The Civil Service system has served Los Angeles well for decades, which is why the charter reform commissions insisted on keeping it in 1999. This merit-based, competitive method of hiring and promotion limits exposure to claims of discrimination, because the city must prove its testing practices are job-related and skills-based according to accepted legal models. This good government measure is as necessary now as ever.
Civil Service hiring has been criticized as cumbersome, and DWP officials have blamed slow hiring for their customer complaints. But steps can be taken to make it more efficient. Last month, for example, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive to train and recruit local residents to fill an anticipated 5,000 city job openings in the next three years. Civil Service procedures can be streamlined within DWP as well.
Like the airport and harbor, DWP is a proprietary department — essentially a business owned and operated by the city. It is undeniably a complex organization and reforms are warranted. But every broken water main and blackout reminds us that public accountability is indispensable.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, served as chair of the elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission from 1997 to 1999.