The Politics Behind the DWP Spat : Bradley: The mayor wants to make the water agency environmentally sensitive--and also restore his political luster after much scandal.

Linda Breakstone is a political reporter for KABC-TV

There's much more than mandatory water rationing, drought and huge expense accounts at the heart of the Department of Water and Power flap--namely, Mayor Tom Bradley's year-long struggle to climb out from under the greatest scandal of his political career.

Whether he is seeking to find his way back to his former near-hero status, as one aide suggested, or preparing ground for an unprecedented bid for a sixth term in 1993, no one knows--including the mayor. For the short term, he would probably be satisfied with near-hero.

Guided by Mark Fabiani, his 33-year-old deputy mayor, the 71-year-old Bradley has reached three blocks up the street from City Hall to reshape what many consider a political untouchable--the DWP. The water agency's annual budget, $2.9 billion this year, is half the entire city's. Also, the DWP, in effect, donates tens of millions of dollars to city coffers annually; it will contribute $111 million in fiscal 1990-91.

Once the mayor achieves his goal of attuning the agency to environmental concerns--and the deed is almost done--the gray, stuffy DWP will be an innovator, a pioneer in such conservation techniques as sewage reclamation and a rigorous strategic planner looking for new water and electricity resources. At least that's the plan. Can desalination of Santa Monica Bay for drinking water be far behind?

This from the same mayor who was exceedingly slow to act on the city's illegal dumping of sewage into Santa Monica Bay.

In addition to Fabiani, former Deputy Mayor Michael Gage is playing a role in Bradley's comeback move and overhaul of the DWP. The two have been in almost daily contact since Bradley appointed Gage, a staunch environmentalist, to the DWP's five-member commission in January. They also conceived Bradley's water-rationing plan--one the DWP didn't like. The City Council tentatively approved this plan last week.

Bradley had also appointed Dorothy Green, president of the grass-roots environmental group, Heal the Bay, to the commission. This left him just one short of a majority--until last week. After pressing for, and getting, Commissioner Carol Wheeler's resignation, the mayor picked Mary Nichols, a former Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown and Bradley environmental aide, to replace her. With three environmentalists now comprising a majority, expect Gage to become DWP commission president on July 26, when new officers are elected.

In part, the unexpected resignation last week of DWP General Manager Norm Nichols (no relation to Mary Nichols) was tied to the commission changes. It might seem that daily newspaper disclosures about his lavish dinners, $700,000 in chartered jets and a $1-million DWP tour program had driven Nichols into early retirement. If not, then perhaps his frustrating meeting with Bradley last month, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the mayor that water rationing was unnecessary at this time. But those were only irritants to the 55-year-old general manager, compared with the significance he attached to Wheeler's forced departure.

Nichols was quick to figure that Gage was about to seize control of the commission and embark on an ambitious environmental crusade. A man accustomed to running his own show, Nichols left, calling the DWP a "political playpen" now filled with environmentalists.

Bradley's attempt to turn around his political fortunes would parallel Gage's and Fabiani's efforts to transform the DWP into a positive force in the lives of its millions of customers. Wholly owned by city taxpayers and exempt from regulation by the Public Utilities Commission, the DWP was envisioned as an experiment in progressive democracy when it opened for business in 1902. It has consistently received high financial ratings and its management is widely considered to be one of the best in the utility business.

But the DWP has become insulated from changing political currents and mostly deaf to calls for greater environmental responsibility. In fairness to the water agency, it should be noted that Bradley had never appointed more than one environmentalist or public-interest member at a time to serve on the commission during his previous 17 years as mayor.

There is another intriguing parallel. Just as Bradley is looking to make the taxpayer-owned DWP more faithful to its progressive roots, so is he returning to the progressivism that first propelled him into City Hall. It might be the best antidote for a year of political pain caused by disclosures about his outside business dealings.

Not long after his 1973 victory, Bradley's administration become identified with a jumble of labor, business and moderate-to-conservative interests in his drive to give downtown Los Angeles a skyline. With the rise of quality-of-life and slow-growth issues, however, that coalition has become almost a political liability for Bradley.

Fabiani is quick to add that the DWP isn't Bradley's only target. He is also tackling low-cost housing, another progressive mantra. "The DWP is just the first that's made a big splash in the press," he said last week--largely because charges of expense-account abuses attract more media attention than initiatives on housing and the protection of Mono Lake.

Fabiani joined the administration after clerking for U.S. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a close adviser to Bradley. Originally the mayor's counsel, Fabiani aggressively sought Bradley's attention and action on a variety of issues. One of them was a law banning discrimination in private clubs, which the mayor initially ignored until another politician ran with it.

Will progressivism turn Bradley into a near-hero again? Says Mary Nichols: "The mayor has given Mark (Fabiani) the mandate."

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