Advocate of DWP reform might have the most to gain
When Fred Pickel sat down to write the city’s official argument in favor of a ballot measure to grant more autonomy to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he promised voters it would make the municipally owned utility “more accountable, transparent and responsive.”
Pickel, who is the executive director of the city’s Office of Public Accountability, which serves as a watchdog over the DWP, did not include that Measure RRR would allow him to be reappointed to a second five-year term in his $276,000-a-year job and double the minimum budget of his small department.
That information is also omitted from the one-paragraph summary of the measure voters will see next to the spot where they will check yes or no on their ballots, but it is mentioned, briefly, in the thick pamphlet mailed to them at home.
Backers say it’s important to boost Pickel’s budget to ensure his independence and insulate him from political meddling.
Asked why he didn’t include what he has to gain if the measure passes, Pickel said the official argument had to be so short that, “no matter what you did, you couldn’t fit some stuff in.”
The proposed changes to the office are relatively minor compared with the broader reforms included in the measure: adding people with industry expertise to the DWP board, giving it the ability to hire employees without going through the city’s cumbersome civil service process, and allowing it to sign contracts without approval from the city council.
The measure is backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City Council and DWP management, who hope it will streamline operations at the roughly $4-billion-per-year department that keeps the lights on and faucets flowing for millions of customers.
Opponents agree that the DWP, which has been plagued by controversy in recent years, needs reform. But they argue the ballot measure would be a step backward, allowing elected officials to avoid responsibility for missteps by the department and DWP managers to spend billions of ratepayer dollars without sufficient oversight.
And they question whether Pickel, in the five years since his appointment, has become too close to the bureaucracy he’s supposed to be watching. Burying the benefits to his office in the fine print of the ballot measure, they say, was the opposite of transparency.
“What kind of ratepayer advocate builds a five-year contract extension into a supposed reform initiative and doesn’t even disclose it in his summary of the initiative?” asked Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, which opposes the measure.
The Office of Public Accountability was born of a 2011 ballot measure by a City Council looking for a way to convince skeptical Angelenos that future rate increases were needed to buy water and produce electricity, not just to cover utility employees’ famously generous salaries and benefits.
After nearly a year of delays, the search committee chose Pickel, who holds a doctorate in engineering and economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had spent decades working in the power industry, including, at one point, consulting for Enron.
In 2015, Pickel was paid $276,000, city records show. That’s $39,000 more than the mayor.
Reviews of Pickel’s performance and the efficacy of his fledgling department have been mixed.
A consultant’s report commissioned by City Controller Ron Galperin last year determined that the Office of Public Accountability “is stuck in a ‘no man’s land’ as it is neither a regulator nor a truly independent advisor and is still searching for relevancy.” The consultants did not criticize Pickel personally but said his office faced “continuous political pressure” from elected officials and DWP managers. They recommended strengthening his political independence.
The Times’ editorial board, which has endorsed the ballot measure, praised Pickel last year for his technical understanding of the problems facing the DWP — including the power of its entrenched employees union and micromanaging by City Hall — but said Pickel had not been “vocal enough in his critiques or public enough in his consumer protection role.”
Last year, Court, of the Santa Monica advocacy group, demanded Pickel’s ouster, saying he didn’t fight hard enough for thousands of DWP customers who had been overcharged after the rollout of a disastrous new billing system in 2013.
Many people who come to Court’s office after the DWP threatens to shut off their lights and water because they haven’t paid their bills — often erroneously inflated by the flawed system — don’t even know the DWP has a ratepayer advocate, Court said.
“He’s getting paid a healthy salary to fight for ratepayers, and he’s not doing it,” Court said.
But Jack Humphreville, a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council and frequent DWP critic, counters that Pickel has been very accessible, and he praised his willingness to say unpopular things.
When irate customers were routinely left waiting on hold for 45 minutes or longer during the billing fiasco, Humphreville said, Pickel was the one who publicly blamed the city’s bureaucratic civil service process for preventing the emergency hiring of customer representatives.
“I think Fred Pickel is doing an excellent job,” Humphreville said. “I wish he would be more aggressive, but if he did that the DWP and City Hall would cut him off; they’d never give him any information.”
The longer, fuller explanation of the ballot measure in the voter pamphlet explains the proposed changes to Pickel’s office in a single paragraph.
It says the “OPA’s Executive Director may be reappointed to a second five-year term” and doubles the minimum budget of his office from 0.025% of DWP revenue to 0.05%.
It does not mention Pickel by name, but he is the first executive director and the only one eligible for reappointment.
Pickel, whose first term expires in February, noted that the change wouldn’t guarantee his reappointment; it would just make the process easier if the mayor and the City Council want him back.
It would allow them to give Pickel another five years — and $1.4 million in salary — without convening a large search committee and going through a long selection process.
A similarly streamlined process is in place to reappoint the city’s police chief.
Pickel, 64, said he’s interested in only one more term.
His current office budget, just over $3 million, is already more than the ballot measure would guarantee, Pickel said. The City Council has routinely instructed the DWP to provide him with more than the minimum funding, he said.
But he wants to raise the guaranteed amount because he “ticks people off” in the course of his work and doesn’t want to be handcuffed by the fear that his budget could get slashed if he upsets the wrong person, he said.
When it came time to write the city’s official argument in favor of the charter amendment, Pickel said he had a lot to contend with, including additions and revisions proposed by DWP officials and neighborhood and environmental groups.
In the end, he decided, the increases he requested were “small change” and sufficiently explained elsewhere in the pamphlet.
So the final version, which bears Pickel’s name as the lead signatory, is silent on the benefits to his office.
Pickel confided he had reservations about asking for a boost in his budget and extending his tenure in the measure, but the city attorney’s office said it was the only way to get to accomplish those goals.
“I didn’t want the issue of my reappointment process to become a distraction and interfere with these reforms,” Pickel said. “I was afraid it would look like self-dealing.”
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