Shortly after being appointed last September, members of the board that guides the nation’s largest municipal utility began receiving complaints about cronyism and nepotism from employees at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
What was most shocking, said H. David Nahai, the Water and Power Commission’s vice president, was the discovery that the department did not formally evaluate its 8,000 workers each year.
As a result, Nahai is expected today to propose “systemic and sweeping changes” in department employment rules.
Among the changes are establishing a standardized system of hiring and promoting; requiring annual evaluations of all employees; and streamlining the ways in which grievances and disciplinary cases are filed and reviewed.
Last fall, Nahai said, DWP employees began attending commission meetings to complain about the work culture.
Some sent anonymous letters.
“As this started to happen, it became clear that we could not, in good conscience, ignore what we were hearing,” said Nahai, who is also chief of the board’s personnel relations committee. “We didn’t know whether what we were hearing was a number of disgruntled employees who were extremely vocal or if this was a widespread problem and we were seeing the tip of the iceberg -- or if the truth lay somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”
In January, the personnel relations committee held two public hearings for employees; about 50 attended and 30 submitted letters.
What became clear right away, Nahai said, was the need for a standardized hiring and promotion policy that would be overseen by the human relations department.
“It’s clear that it’s damaging to morale if hiring and promotion decisions are being made on grounds other than merit and seniority,” Nahai said, adding that he was surprised that many of the people who came forward were veterans of the department -- employees who had been there for 20 to 30 years.
To fully address allegations that supervisors play favorites, he said the department must also have a formal system of reviewing the performance of its employees.
“I was stunned that there are no employee evaluations,” Nahai said in an interview Monday. “You think, ‘How can that be with an organization of this size?’ What we’ll be calling for is a department-wide evaluation from the top to bottom.”
The department must also expedite the processes in which grievances and disciplinary cases are reviewed, Nahai said.
It can now take up to a year for a grievance to be reviewed and accepted or denied; Nahai thinks it should not take more than three months for a case to be processed. Similarly, disciplinary proceedings now can take a year or two to be resolved.
Nahai will also call for the department to create an internal investigative unit whose sole purpose would be to look into employee grievances. Now, complaints are reviewed by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and the DWP’s human resources department.
He also intends to call for outside audits of five of the department’s units -- information technology, custodial, security, landscape and fleet services.
In those departments, he said, employees have said they were “fearful of speaking up” to supervisors and “when they do, they are treated as pariahs. They are isolated and treated in a way that lacks dignity.”
Nahai said he would direct DWP department managers to respond to the recommendations within the next month, if not by the next board meeting in two weeks.
“We want all of this to happen as quickly as possible. I found that in employee relations, when something languishes, it amplifies the problem because the perception is that nothing is being done,” he said.