Bid to create DWP watchdog advances

The Los Angeles City Council moved closer Tuesday to placing on the ballot a controversial plan to create a watchdog agency at the Department of Water and Power, setting the stage for an election next year focusing on the nation's largest municipally owned utility.

The plan was one of a dizzying array of nearly a dozen measures that the council may put before L.A. voters on an already crowded March 8 ballot.

The proposals include measures to increase funding for public libraries, levy a new tax on medical marijuana collectives, reform campaign financing laws and bolster the city's emergency reserve fund.

Prompting the flurry of activity is the fact that Wednesday is the deadline for council action to place measures on the March ballot. Lawmakers are expected to consider at least two more proposed measures Wednesday: a tax on oil produced in L.A. and a plan to reduce the costs of pensions and retiree health plans for newly hired police officers and firefighters.

Three of the measures proposed for the March ballot focus on the giant DWP, which provides water and electricity to about 1.4 million customers and has long been a power bloc in city government.

The council feuded bitterly with the department earlier this year about a proposed electricity rate increase backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Lingering hard feelings and mistrust have fueled the council's determination to create a watchdog to review DWP operations.

On Tuesday, the council moved to ask voters to create an Office of Public Accountability to provide "independent" analysis of DWP decisions, including the setting of water and electricity rates. The office would also review consumer complaints. Also advancing was a plan to give the council new powers to remove DWP governing commissioners and the agency's general manager.

Both measures await final council approval Wednesday before officially making it onto the March 8 ballot.

Villaraigosa has said he supports the idea of a "ratepayer advocate," but argued that the post could be set up without the expense of putting the issue on the ballot. Council members argued that a vote to embed the new agency in the City Charter was needed to ensure its independence.

Also expressing reservations about the ballot measure is the powerful union representing DWP employees.

Under the council plan, a citizens committee would appoint the executive director of the Office of Public Accountability. The director would be subject to confirmation by the City Council and the mayor.

The original proposal contained a specific breakdown of the advocate's responsibilities. The council gave initial approval to a less detailed version, prompting Councilman Greig Smith to say the revision would "gut" the reform measure and result in a weak watchdog agency. But City Council President Eric Garcetti said there was no intent to water down the plan.

"I will not be for something that guts reform at DWP," Garcetti said.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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