Mayor Eric Garcetti’s latest appointee to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s board of commissioners is a top executive at a company that markets water and power and has a history of trying to make deals with government agencies in Southern California, including LADWP.
Nicole Neeman Brady serves as principal and chief operating officer at L.A.-based Renewable Resources Group, which develops solar energy facilities and has bought and sold lands with valuable water rights.
The City Council confirmed Neeman Brady’s appointment without discussion earlier this month.
The five-member board of commissioners oversees the country’s largest municipal utility, helping guide purchases of energy and water for the 4 million people who live in Los Angeles. Renewable Resources Group is in the business of developing energy and water projects, raising the potential for conflicts of interest if the company seeks to do business with LADWP while Neeman Brady serves on the board.
Neeman Brady and her employer “do not have any business relationship or bids with the DWP,” Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said in an email. Tom Eisenhauer, a spokesman for Renewable Resources Group, also said the company is not currently doing any work with the Los Angeles utility.
Neeman Brady said in an email that she’s “not aware of any conflicts of interest.” But she’ll recuse herself if a potential conflict arises, she said.
“I love this city, and I believe my professional experience in energy and water makes me well-suited to provide oversight beneficial to LADWP’s customers,” she said. “I have always followed all applicable disclosure, ethics and conflict-of-interest requirements, and I will continue to do so.”
L.A.'s ethics code requires a strict separation between public service and private-sector work, saying city officials “shall not disclose confidential information acquired by or available to them in the course of their employment with the City, or use such information for speculation or personal gain.”
It’s not unprecedented for an LADWP commissioner to come from the energy industry, said Fred Pickel, who has served as the municipal utility’s in-house ratepayer watchdog since 2012. But besides Neeman Brady, none of the current board members are employed by an energy company.
Recent commissioners appointed by Garcetti have worked in fields such as law, public relations, philanthropy, environmental sustainability and real estate.
The good news about Neeman Brady’s appointment is that she knows the energy business, Pickel said. The challenge, he said, will be figuring out when she has to recuse herself from votes or policy discussions that could affect projects Renewable Resources Group is developing.
“She may have to recuse herself from a lot of stuff. We’ll see how that works,” Pickel said.
Spokesman Eisenhauer described Renewable Resources Group as “an asset management and investment firm that focuses on sustainability, agriculture, water, conservation, and renewable energy.”
The firm owns agricultural operations including Sun World International, best known for its table grapes. The company “prioritizes working openly and cooperatively with other key stakeholders, especially our neighbors and the community,” Eisenhauer said.
Still, it may not always be clear what projects Renewable Resources Group is working on because the company typically keeps a low profile.
“We don’t discuss specific company business in the press,” Eisenhauer said in an email.
The firm has long had relationships with Los Angeles officials.
Renewable Resources Group co-founder Ari Swiller was an advisor to and fundraiser for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Garcetti’s predecessor.
In 2008, during Villaraigosa’s time in office, Swiller’s company outmaneuvered the city to buy land in Kern County where LADWP had hoped to build wind turbines. The firm then offered to sell a portion of the land to Los Angeles at a premium, although city officials rejected the offer.
Today, Renewable Resources Group has permits to build two large solar farms in eastern Riverside County, the 485-megawatt Blythe Mesa project and 450-megawatt Palo Verde Mesa project. Neither solar farm has signed up a buyer yet for the electricity that will be generated, Eisenhauer said.
Under state law, LADWP will be required to get 100% of its electricity from climate-friendly energy sources such as solar power by 2045.
Renewable Resources Group has also purchased large amounts of agricultural land in Imperial County, which controls more than two-thirds of the water California is allowed to draw from the Colorado River.
The company has a history of trying to move water from agricultural areas to cities. In 2015, it sold farmland near Blythe to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which wanted to secure access to the land’s Colorado River water
Metropolitan is a wholesaler that sells water to Los Angeles and 25 other cities and agencies. The agency is L.A.'s largest source of water.
Los Angeles also hopes to secure up to 40,000 acre-feet of water from new sources in the coming years, according to LADWP’s water management plan.
There could be a “hell of a conflict” if Renewable Resources Group made a deal to sell water to Los Angeles while Neeman Brady is on the board, said S. David Freeman, a former LADWP general manager. Freeman helped found Renewable Resources Group in the early 2000s, after leaving LADWP.
But Neeman Brady should be able to avoid any conflicts by recusing herself when appropriate, Freeman said. He also noted that LADWP commissioners are typically beholden to the mayor, who appoints them and can have them removed.
The board president might wield some influence independent of the mayor, “but other than that they’re nothingburgers,” Freeman said.
Asked what protocols are in place to guard against conflicts of interest at LADWP, Comisar noted that a city attorney “participates in all commission meetings and consults with commissioners to help ensure ethics compliance and recusals when necessary.” All city commissioners, Comisar said, “must uphold the highest standard of integrity, follow all ethics requirements and recuse themselves from certain decisions if conflicts of interest ever arise.”
Like other LADWP board members, Neeman Brady will be required to file annual financial disclosure forms.
Her first disclosure form, submitted last month, lists Renewable Resources Group as her only source of income. It also says she owns stock in Southern California Edison’s parent company, Edison International, where she used to work on energy procurement, water treatment and recycling strategies.
In a statement announcing her appointment, Garcetti said Neeman Brady’s “breadth of experience in environmental policy and track record as a creative problem-solver will make her a powerful leader at LADWP.”
“Her vision and expertise will help us strengthen a utility that’s front and center in building a greener, more sustainable Los Angeles,” Garcetti said.
Neeman Brady was also appointed last year to the Colorado River Board of California, which represents the state in negotiations over management of the Colorado River, a critical water source for the American West. But she resigned last week, based on guidance from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office that her continued service as a “public member” of the river board could create a conflict of interest, since LADWP already has an appointee on that board.