At DWP, leadership’s the ticket

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Now that the heated rhetoric surrounding the DWP rate hike has cooled, it’s time to discuss the urgent need to hire a permanent general manager for the Department of Water and Power.

As the recently appointed interim DWP leader, Austin Beutner, has observed, having nine managers in a 10-year period has not been a recipe for success for the agency. No one would dispute this statement. I was DWP’s general manager and DWP commission president; I know that without longevity and continuity in this post, the agency cannot hope to make progress in achieving essential transformations.

DWP’s leadership vacuum was laid bare in March and April during the bungled rate-hike campaign, with its muddled messages, ever-changing numbers and the unseemly spectacle of a “blackmail” letter to the City Council threatening to renege on a financial commitment unless the council approved a rate increase. As a result, there is now also a crisis of credibility in the department’s relationship with the council, the body that has jurisdiction over the DWP’s rates.

All of this comes at a pivotal time for the agency. DWP’s infrastructure is deteriorating and its workforce is aging. It remains a coal-dominated utility, yet its coal contracts are expiring in the near future, and state and federal energy legislation will necessitate steep reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions. The agency must move vigorously toward renewable energy resources. It also must develop new and indigenous sources of water.

Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s leadership, my tenure saw certain reforms at DWP. The utility’s renewable energy portfolio grew fivefold; we formulated a well-regarded sustainable Water Supply Plan, drastically lowered water consumption and increased energy efficiency, among other achievements. However, without capable, respected and steady leadership at the top, such gains will be lost.

Beutner has expressed no interest in leading the DWP permanently, and in light of the rate-hike fiasco, there is no one in the top rank of the DWP with sufficient respect or credibility to be considered for the job. An outside candidate must be found.

I am certain that to attract a qualified outside person to step into this morass, three basic measures are crucial: The next general manager should be offered a detailed, specific contract; he or she should be afforded free rein to bring in a new team; and the role of the DWP commission must be clearly defined.

The benefits of a contract should be self-evident. Consider, for a moment, the array of demands that bombard the general manager on a daily basis, as well as the layers of oversight to which he is subject: the mayor’s office; 15 City Council members; the city controller; the five DWP commissioners; the DWP union (which represents 97% of the agency’s workforce); 98 neighborhood councils; individual rate-paying residents; a host of federal, state and local agencies; as well as myriad other labor, business, environmental and community entities. Dealing with all of these often-conflicting interests is part of the general manager’s job. Along the way, special interests that don’t get their way may turn into implacable enemies. A contract would afford a manager at least some level of insulation from political turbulence and interference.

Additionally, a contract would send a strong internal message to DWP personnel that the agency’s leadership will not be upended on a whim, and that the manager’s program has long-term support.

A contract does not mean that the mayor, the City Council or the commission would abdicate control. They will vet the appointee and authorize the contract, which can incorporate performance standards, review procedures and termination provisions. The same contract that could help a new manager do his job could also simplify his termination.

In addition to getting a contract, the next DWP head must be allowed to form his or her own team and clean house as necessary. To make this meaningful, DWP’s organizational chart must be revised so that all of its major divisions report directly to the general manager, not through the chief operating officer, as has been sometimes the case. As I discovered, the organization chart represents entrenched lines of loyalty; it can complicate the simplest order. A request to see a report can get caught up in “channels”; directions and discipline may be undermined by a longstanding bureaucracy.

Similarly, the lines of power between the general manager and the DWP commission should be clarified. The commission is responsible for setting the policy direction of the agency and exercising general oversight over its affairs. I’m well aware that its day-to-day role at DWP can be unpredictable, far too often depending on the personalities of commissioners. The manager-commission relationship should be clarified to maximize the effectiveness and authority of the general manager while ensuring reasonable oversight and accountability.

Los Angeles must move with alacrity to fill the leadership void at the DWP. A solid contract, a new organization chart and clarification of the role of the commission are three steps that can help us find, and retain, a manager with the capacity to restore confidence and get the agency back on track.

Lawyer and consultant David Nahai served as DWP commission vice president from 2005 to 2006, as its president from 2006 to 2007 and as DWP general manager from 2007 to 2009.