New law gives more autonomy to DWP on contracts

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A new law will allow the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to enter into heftier contracts without getting approval from its board, and gives the board power to greenlight longer contracts without requiring Los Angeles City Council approval.

The City Council voted 12-0 on Tuesday to approve the ordinance, which was touted as a way to save money and make the department more efficient.

The new ordinance will authorize the head of the agency to sign off on certain contracts of up to $5 million without board approval, a marked increase from the existing limit of $150,000. City ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel, who backed the changes, likened that to a family with a $1,000 monthly budget insisting on a meeting before they spent more than 2 1/2 cents.


The current requirement “constrains operations and involves the board in details instead of policymaking,” board vice president William W. Funderburk Jr. said in a written statement, calling the changes “sensible contracting reforms.”

The utility estimated that the change would reduce processing time for many of its contracts, cutting it from 58 business days to 17. Board approval would still be needed for any contracts for professional services or those that last more than three years.

In addition, the DWP board will be able to approve many contracts that last up to five years without City Council approval. The current limit is three years.

If the board is approving a contract for construction equipment or software that is offered by only one vendor, it does not need to get council approval unless the agreement lasts longer than a decade.

Loosening those requirements was included in a long list of recommendations from lawmakers meant to smooth department operations and cut back on political meddling from City Hall. More than a year ago, Los Angeles voters rejected many of those proposals, turning down a ballot measure that was aimed at giving the department more autonomy.

That measure, RRR, would have expanded the utility board, added requirements that board members have particular kinds of expertise, and opened the door to allowing the department to hire workers without using the civil service process — an idea that spurred opposition from unions that represent employees of other city departments.


After voters turned down the ballot measure, city officials continued to pursue other recommended changes that did not require voter approval. The new law approved Tuesday generated little debate as it was vetted at City Hall, but Jamie Court, president of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, argued that it was wrong to take more utility decisions out of the hands of the City Council.

“This basically makes sure that no one is ever accountable if a bad contract is signed. … Only elected officials are accountable to the voters,” Court argued.

Pickel countered that even if some contracts do not automatically have to go to the City Council for approval, lawmakers can still exercise their power under the city charter to veto board decisions.

The new law also requires that regular reports concerning utility contracts be made to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and to the City Council.

It also sets out a new process that allows the agency to weigh factors beyond the lowest bid when it seeks specific kinds of equipment and services.


Twitter: @AlpertReyes