Union representing DWP workers comes out against proposed independent watchdog

The union that represents thousands of employees at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has come out against a plan to ask city voters to create an independent watchdog at the nation's largest municipally owned utility.

Working Californians, a campaign committee that pushes issues on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ran full-page newspaper advertisements this week accusing the City Council of rushing a so-called ratepayer advocate onto the March 8 ballot.

"While reform is needed, this proposal has had too little deliberation and too little public input," the ad said. Working Californians is co-chaired by Brian D'Arcy, who heads IBEW Local 18, the union that represents roughly 8,600 DWP employees. The group was the driving force behind Measure B, the 2009 solar power measure backed by the union but rejected by voters.

A City Council vote on the proposed ballot measure is scheduled for Tuesday. But the last-minute advertising raises the prospect of the IBEW spending large sums to kill the proposal if it goes on the ballot.

Supporters of the ratepayer advocate say it has been part of the public debate since 2008, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointees at the DWP commission killed a proposal to create the post. Eight public meetings discussing the advocate have been held since Labor Day, said Yusef Robb, spokesman for Council President Eric Garcetti.

D'Arcy's union sent a letter to the council last week saying it feared that a rush to create a ratepayer advocate, along with efforts to change the makeup of the DWP commission, would hurt the utility.

Councilwoman Jan Perry said an advocate is needed because the DWP has shown a pattern of keeping information from the public, particularly when it wants to increase rates. "Clearly we have a problem internally, and we need to respond," she said.

The debate comes two weeks after two DWP employees were arrested on suspicion of defrauding the utility by making at least $3 million in inflated purchases from "dummy" companies. And it comes six months after two television news stations aired video that appeared to show DWP workers visiting strip clubs while on the job.

Three DWP employees left their jobs in the wake of that incident, utility spokesman Joe Ramallo said.

D'Arcy has grown increasingly bold in publicly challenging the city's political leaders. Two weeks ago, his union packed City Hall and persuaded council members to kill a ballot plan that would have given the council more of a say over utility workers' pension benefits.

At that meeting, D'Arcy told The Times that he was unhappy with efforts by Villaraigosa and the council to bring more renewable energy to the DWP.

"So now the 15 council members here, half of whom have never had a real job, are going to decide what our [energy] mix is going to be? Or which fuel source we're going to hedge against inflation? Or shortages? I mean, come on, that's insane," he said.

"Keeping the lights and the water flowing isn't sexy, but apparently green energy is," he added.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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