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Newton: Garcetti and the DWP

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was sworn in Sunday, has made it clear that no department head from the Antonio Villaraigosa years is safe (except for Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has a term of office that only the Police Commission can cut short). And Garcetti has signaled his particular focus on three of the city's agencies, each of which has had its struggles: the Fire Department, the Information Technology group and the Department of Water and Power.

For Garcetti, the most important of those, both governmentally and politically, is the DWP. It's an enormous business, it supplies the city with important revenue as well as its most basic services, and it's an easy agency to hate — most city departments, after all, don't send out bills to more than a million customers. Moreover, the union that represents most of its workers distinguished itself in the mayoral election by going all out for Controller Wendy Greuel.

Here's what Garcetti said about the DWP when he met with reporters, editors and executives of The Times last month: "The DWP, certainly, is one that I think you need to have leadership from the commission, from the general manager, from whoever chairs the committee in the council."

Those are not the words of a satisfied official, and they could suggest a rough ride ahead for the DWP.

But does the agency really need a firmer hand? Despite its penchant for controversy, the DWP in recent years actually has compiled quite a positive record. It has kept its rates lower than most other regional suppliers of water and power, and, spurred on by the last mayor, it has embraced renewable energy production with such enthusiasm that Los Angeles is now regarded as a national leader in combating climate change. In March, Villaraigosa announced that the DWP, which today generates about 40% of its electricity at coal-fired plants, intends to use no coal at all by 2025.

"This," former Vice President Al Gore proclaimed, "is a very big deal."

Still, the DWP is a handy punching bag for a new mayor, and Garcetti's public rumination about the need for strong leadership at the department may reflect his calculation that he could make political hay by beating up the department a bit. Moreover, a little display of swagger might help persuade those who remain unconvinced of Garcetti's toughness.

Ron Nichols has headed the DWP for the past 2 1/2 years, ending a whirlwind of general managers — five in five years — that contributed to the department's instability and political vulnerability. He's replaced that with steady growth, smart infrastructure investment and a return to civility in rate talks. He conducted scores of public hearings to explain the need for rate hikes to residents, and the latest increases, amazingly, were approved with almost no fanfare.

Nichols is a businessman, but he knows politics, and he knows that there could be some adjustments ahead as the new mayor and council members settle in. We spoke last week in a DWP conference room, sipping cold tap water, as he made the case that the agency should stay the course.

"I like where we're positioned right now," Nichols said. "I'm proud of what this organization has done in the past 2 1/2 years."

Investments in renewables and conservation have helped the city stay ahead of state mandates on greenhouse gas reduction. In water, new reservoirs have increased supply, and conservation campaigns have turned Los Angeles into the most water-efficient big city in America. On Thursday, the DWP even announced a partial settlement in its long-running efforts to suppress dust in the Owens Valley, where a dry lake bed is the result of L.A.'s water grab in the early 20th century.

But the DWP also is regarded as profligate and under the control of its union. Employees of the department

make considerably more money than their counterparts elsewhere in city government, and their contracts are up next year. Nichols defends the salary disparity — up to a point — noting that linemen, for instance, do more dangerous work than, say, city electricians. Moreover, even support personnel are called upon during blackouts or storms.

Still, he acknowledged that some salaries may be out of whack and that the coming contract talks may be difficult. If Garcetti can hold down rates by refusing raises, it's hard to imagine he'd pass up the chance.

I asked Nichols whether that would be bad for department morale. He answered cautiously: "Nobody likes a situation where your cost of living goes up and your buying power goes down. By the same token, those are discussions that will be held." Has anyone floated the idea of no raises, I asked? Nichols arched an eyebrow but declined to comment.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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