DWP’s climate of patronage must change

Richard Nemec is a Los Angeles writer who covers energy for several national trade publications.

When I first read the news last spring that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had named S. David Freeman as his deputy mayor for environmental and energy programs, I was sure that H. David Nahai’s tenure as general manager at the city utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, would be short. Fast-forward to now: Nahai has resigned, and the mayor has proposed -- and the commission that oversees the DWP has approved -- Freeman, 83, to be the interim chief for six months.

Thus the political musical chairs in the DWP’s executive suite continue. Dating back to the mid-1990s when Mayor Richard Riordan brought in a political pro, William McCarley, as the first non-engineer to head the city-run utility, there have been four chiefs, including Freeman.

Despite the obvious water infrastructure problems that have surfaced in recent weeks, to Nahai’s credit, the agency he left abruptly last week is no worse off fiscally or operationally after his tenure than it was after Freeman’s four publicity-seeking years as the utility’s chief executive (1997-2001).


However, dating back to McCarley, the DWP has been eroded by over- politicization at the top. Although the giant utility will always be an economic development and environmental toy for the mayor and City Council members to play with, it should not be the political football it has increasingly become.

Nahai, for all of his professional credentials as a Century City lawyer and environmentalist, was first appointed to the DWP oversight board by the mayor in 2005 -- and as general manager two years later -- because he has been a successful fundraiser and active member of the Democratic Party generally and for the mayor in particular.

This political patronage needs to stop. And Freeman, himself a lifetime political appointee at all levels of government, needs to get a professional utility executive to head the cash-cow utility. That’s the best service he could provide his politician boss.

The DWP has not been a model of transparency in the current management shuffle. Its oversight board called a special meeting Tuesday to deal with the changes, but held it in a Boyle Heights youth center away from the customary downtown boardroom. Although such meetings are public, they are usually also accessible through a teleconferencing hookup, but there was no such link this time. I would like to have heard the discussion about Nahai’s exit and Freeman’s return.

The longer-range concern may be what Freeman is going to do with the city utility as it faces a crucial time for both power and water operations. But more immediately, there should be transparency and openness about Nahai’s consulting contract with the DWP, at $6,282 a week, and Freeman’s salary of $6,250 a week, both approved on Tuesday.

Neither Nahai nor Freeman could ever be accused of working cheap, and Freeman has had his share of perks at public expense. He’s also dipped his toe in the private sector from time to time, and has held and may still hold a financial interest in a clean-fuel transportation company that has contracts to supply zero-emission vehicles to the L.A. and Long Beach harbors.

Freeman has been good at delivering wake-up calls to presidents, mayors and state officials during his 60 years of public life. But that is not what is needed at the DWP these days. What’s needed is a leader with professional credentials whom the vast majority of dedicated city utility workers will follow, and someone who can go toe to toe with big-name state energy officials and private-sector utility CEOs.

There are former senior managers from the DWP running smaller municipal utilities in Southern California who would be viable candidates. There are former chief executives from private-sector utilities that might be lured out of retirement to take the DWP through its latest transition.

That transition is simple: Move out of the recession, address global climate change, shrink reliance on coal-fired generation and become a champion for aggressive energy efficiency and renewable-based generation, and do it without a lot of rate increases. All this should be bipartisan work that gets across-the-board support at City Hall.

Although both the unions and mayor have a different idea, Freeman needs to find a real leader for the nation’s largest city-run utility. Anything less will be politics as usual.