Before she even started as general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Marcie Edwards was asked by a city councilman how long she planned to stick around in a job that came with "a certain amount of abuse."
"I'm OK with getting knocked down," the 57-year-old Edwards said, adding that she planned to make this job, which she started this month, her last. "But I can consistently get back up."
Edwards is taking the reins of the DWP — an agency that has long frustrated City Hall leaders and the ratepayers they represent — as it reels from the troubled rollout of a new billing system and faces nagging questions about how two nonprofit trusts spent $40 million in public money.
She must grapple with drought, wean the utility off coal in favor of more expensive renewable fuels and keep power flowing to some 1.4 million ratepayers — all while surviving crossfire from an impatient City Council and a powerful union not shy about wielding influence.
One man who has been in her shoes called it "an impossible job." The agency head has complete power over few positions, faces a council reluctant to raise rates, and a union "that is trying to run the place," said former DWP General Manager S. David Freeman. Past managers haven't lasted very long; Edwards is the eighth person to hold the job in a decade, including longtime interim hires.
And she isn't just holding a job: Edwards is the chosen change-maker of a mayor who has pledged to reform the DWP after a string of controversies, the face of his push to rebuild confidence and restore pride in the nation's largest municipal utility. Mayor Eric Garcetti has repeatedly declared that if he made a manager out of clay, he couldn't do better than Edwards, the first woman in the notoriously tough gig.
She already knows her way around the DWP, having spent 24 years there before moving to run Anaheim's municipal utility. Her last job was as Anaheim city manager, which thrust her into the middle of tense debates over issues such as how to react to police shootings. There, she was praised for keeping her cool.
Though Edwards speaks softly, "she does not suffer fools," said Anaheim City Councilwoman Lucille Kring. "When she's right, she just lets the hammer down and says, 'This is how we're doing it.'"
Her manner is straightforward, her style unfussy. Weekends are spent bicycling with her husband or dancing to the electric guitar of a band she loves in Long Beach; she likes crime thrillers, "The Lord of the Rings," her 4-year-old granddaughter and "an obnoxious five-pound dog named Tess-Poodle."
She has an easy humor. At one of her first public meetings with ratepayers in Sherman Oaks recently, she joked that having grown up there, "I've done things in the Valley I'm glad they never caught me at!" and dropped the adage, "Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting over" when asked about conservation. She talks about taking jobs rare for women with little bravado, saying, "You have to have faith in your abilities."
If it were not for the siren song of a Ford Mustang, Edwards might never have reached the pinnacle of the DWP. She was barely out of her teens, a clerk typist at the same agency where her father, uncle and grandfather had worked, when she decided to try climbing the promotional ladder in the hopes that a job as a steam plant assistant would help her buy that Mustang.
Edwards never got the Mustang — these days she drives a Dodge Journey. Instead, she started earning a reputation as a sharp technocrat. Early in her career, whenever the power went out, "She wanted to know, 'Why did it happen the way it did?'" said Kenneth Silver, who supervised her when she was a load dispatcher. With time, "She moved up quicker than I did — and I wound up working for her before she left."
After more than two decades, Edwards left the DWP, frustrated by its "seeming inability to get things done." She headed to Anaheim and spent 13 years as the head of its utility. She sometimes answered calls with customer service operators; Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said she calmed aggrieved customers herself. The Anaheim system survived the energy crisis more than a decade ago with few blackouts, as Disneyland and other big customers cut back.
Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman remembers calling her about a problem, only to find that she was already working to resolve it. Even the union remembers her fondly. Managers are "typically some kind of bean counters or MBAs or engineers," the worst with "no clue what they're trying to accomplish out there barking orders," said Patrick Lavin, business manager for IBEW Local 47, which represents Anaheim utility workers. Edwards was different — "She came out of the trade." During her time there, Edwards earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in night classes from the University of La Verne — getting the degrees she couldn't afford when she was younger.
Three years ago, she had a scrape with the law, ultimately pleading guilty to driving with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit in Huntington Beach. (Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman said Edwards "informed us of this and expressed regret for her actions" before she was hired.) Edwards said she was in a personal vehicle and called it an "error in judgment."
At work, however, her judgment continued to impress Anaheim politicians and staff, who had repeatedly tapped her for other City Hall jobs before she became city manager in July. Amid concern about police shootings, Edwards designed a new "public safety board" of community members. Community activists criticized it as toothless, partly because it lacked subpoena power; Edwards argued that would be difficult to enforce. Those frustrated with the city saw her as doing too little to shift its direction. "Marcie is smart as a whip," said Cynthia Ward, president of the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility. "But a lot of us feel she plays the political game a little too well … going along with what the majority wants."
Edwards said she has no fear of politics — it's just a reflection of what different people want, she said. Anaheim City Councilwoman Gail Eastman said she had never seen her "rattled." Still, Kring says the political winds in Anaheim could be lashing, leading Edwards to once ask her, "Why did I take this job?"
She could be asking the same question in Los Angeles someday. But for now, Edwards is rhapsodic about the $345,000-a-year position, saying "the stars are in alignment" for change with this mayor and council.
Fixing the bemoaned billing system is her first task. But her goals go beyond the immediate mess: Edwards wants to ramp up system reliability. She wants the public utility to rank much higher in customer service. And she wants Los Angeles to be seen as an innovator.
"I know how to push through the artificial no's that a bureaucracy can throw up at you," she said. "But I'm also aware of the challenges."
So far even her few critics have no qualms about her capability. But many still wonder whether she can wrest control of the department.
"How much free rein is she going to be given to govern?" DWP grid operations manager Don Sievertson, a fan of hers, asked. The question isn't whether Edwards is ready, he said. "The real question is, is the city ready for Marcie?"