Who’s watching the DWP?

Does the Department of Water and Power need more oversight? The recent and perhaps continuing showdown over electricity rate increases suggests that it does. The city owns the utility, but it’s still hard for City Council members or the public to get accurate and consistent information on the department’s finances, plans and practices. The problem has been exacerbated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s fumbling attempt to impose a carbon surcharge, supposedly to begin a serious transition from burning dirty coal to relying instead on renewable energy. The temptation is strong to unleash a sort of special investigator -- a person both independent and accountable, with power to delve deep into the DWP, obtain unassailable data and report directly to the public.

That’s much of the thinking behind a move, now more than a year old, to appoint a ratepayer advocate or inspector general. Long-simmering mistrust of the DWP led neighborhood councils and homeowners to demand someone who could cut through the politics and posturing and deliver straight answers. The pressure was strong enough that several City Council members introduced motions calling for such a position, and the mayor included a ratepayer advocate -- to be housed in the office of the city controller -- as part of his first carbon surcharge proposal.

Without care, however, the city could find itself with new layers of both bureaucracy and politics, and yet with no better grasp than it has now on how the department operates.

The DWP has long been overseen by a five-member Board of Water and Power Commissioners, each member named by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Originally, however, members served staggered five-year terms, so leadership was to some degree independent of any particular mayor or any interest group backing the mayor. No single commissioner could be removed in the middle of a term by the mayor without the assent of the council. The commissioners were in a very real sense a board of directors: They hired, and could fire, the department’s general manager.

But independence is necessarily at odds with accountability, and over time voters altered the City Charter to put the DWP under more direct control of elected officials. One amendment gave the mayor -- acting with the consent of the City Council -- the power to hire and fire the general manager. More recently, seeking to make the department even more accountable, voters allowed the mayor to oust the general manager without the council’s consent. They also eliminated commissioners’ five-year terms and allowed the mayor to remove board members at will. The result is that now both the general manager and the commissioners serve at the mayor’s pleasure.

Commissioners can still keep the department on its toes. But because the commissioners and the general manager are equally answerable to the mayor, it’s unreasonable to expect the board to object to an initiative that comes from the department or directly from the mayor’s office. Last week’s Board of Water and Power Commissioners vote on the mayor’s carbon surcharge thus came off as something of a charade. The mayor wanted the plan; department management presented the plan; and the board, answerable to the mayor, adopted the plan.

Oversight, therefore, falls to the City Council. Council members are elected by the public, and as such are politically accountable while still independent from the mayor. Are they not the ratepayers’ advocates? After all, it was the council that said “no” on Friday to the mayor’s carbon surcharge, and on Tuesday sent the board a much smaller rate increase plan.

Last August, when the DWP presented a rate plan and the council found itself unable to trust the department’s facts and figures, the council delayed the increase and commissioned an independent analysis. The resulting report by PA Consulting, released in February, recommended an increase but also noted the department’s problem with transparency. The council questioned the consultants extensively in several hearings, agreeing with some of their findings and taking issue with others.

But it’s still hard for the council or the public to persuade the department to give accurate and consistent information on its finances, plans and practices. Some have called for a position similar to the police inspector general, with wide-ranging power to ferret out the truth. But the police inspector general reports, generally in confidence, to a board that retains more independence than the Water and Power board and has a far different recent history. There would be little point in an inspector general or ratepayer advocate reporting to the Water and Power board, which, together with the DWP general manager, represents the mayor. Neighborhood councils may want to select someone, but that person would then have little recourse if stonewalled by the department.

Villaraigosa’s proposal calls for an advocate in the office of the city controller. It’s a logical place. The controller is independently elected, accountable to no one but the voters. Some neighborhood council leaders have objected that the current controller, Wendy Greuel, received campaign contributions from the union that represents most DWP workers and therefore would be unlikely to delve into anything that undercuts the union’s position. But the union donates to many candidates, not just Greuel. If she is seen by voters to be going too easy on the DWP -- and, by the way, when she served on the council she often harshly criticized the department -- they can elect someone else next time.