The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday moved to ask voters to approve a new watchdog office for the giant Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest publicly owned utility.
The council voted unanimously to direct the city attorney to draft a ballot measure to create an oversight agency, the Office of Public Accountability, which would have broad authority to assess DWP operations, including rate hikes, management performance and customer relations.
The measure, if approved, would be placed on the March 8 ballot as an amendment to the city charter.
"DWP is in need of fundamental reform," said City Council President Eric Garcetti, a strong backer of the plan. "This reform will increase public scrutiny of the DWP budget and the fiscal stability of the city as a whole."
Several other council members expressed outrage about the DWP, which clashed with the council earlier this year in a bitter dispute about proposed electricity rate hikes backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The battle has left bruised feelings and a sense on the council that things must change at the public utility.
"The reason we're in this position is [that] people are fed up and don't have trust," Councilman Bill Rosendahl said.
But Austin Beutner, the city's volunteer jobs chief who has headed the DWP since April, told lawmakers that he didn't see the need for a ballot initiative, and indicated that he would be glad to work with lawmakers in crafting an alternative. He urged "caution" in proposing changes to the city charter, and said he was committed to bolstering accountability and transparency at the agency.
"Putting it on the ballot or not doesn't ensure independence," Beutner said in a subsequent telephone interview.
Avoiding an election, Beutner argued, would save time and money.
The DWP has an annual budget of about $4 billion and provides electricity and water service to about 1.4 million customers.
Supporters of the ballot measure say a charter amendment is the only way to guarantee the independence of the proposed Office of Public Accountability, also known as a ratepayer advocate or inspector general or ombudsman.
Who would appoint the head of the new office remained to be determined. Councilman Paul Krekorian proposed a system in which the responsibility would fall to a 12-member commission, jointly appointed by the council, the mayor and voluntary neighborhood councils.
Lawmakers are also considering other far-reaching changes at the DWP, including increasing the council's power on agency operations, expanding from 5 to 7 the number of commissioners who oversee the department and speeding up the time by which its budgets must be released. Those issues are expected to be debated in the next week.
The council has until Nov. 17 to complete the DWP reform proposal so that the measure qualifies for the March ballot.
The council also moved forward with a ballot plan to devote a larger share of property tax proceeds to city libraries, which have been battered by budget cuts. The plan would generate up to $53 million in additional annual revenues and allow the city to reopen branches six days and four evenings a week after cuts that have reduced hours, said Martin Gomez, the city librarian.
The council also voted 9 to 4 to draft a proposal from Councilman Jose Huizar that seeks to increase the amount of "matching funds," or taxpayer money, that would be available to candidates in upcoming city elections. Matching funds are provided to candidates who agree to limits on both the amount they spend on their campaigns and the amount of personal money they provide for their campaign committees.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.