Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday that he would support efforts to place a ballot measure before voters overhauling the leadership of the Department of Water and Power, joining a growing chorus of public officials who say institutional change is needed at L.A.’s perennially unpopular public utility.
In an interview with The Times, Garcetti — whose promises to reform the DWP were at the center of his 2013 mayoral campaign — said he would support new governance rules aimed at preventing political meddling in the utility’s operations. However, he stopped short of embracing the full slate of reforms suggested by other lawmakers.
“The campaign was about this. I’ve been focused since I’ve been here on modernizing a utility that serves its ratepayers — that does things cheaper, faster, better, greener,” he said. “I think this is a once-in-a-generation chance. I’m sick of the studies, and it’s time to take action for the ratepayers.”
Garcetti said he would like to look for ways to loosen restrictions on the DWP stemming from the city’s ponderous civil service code, which slows the hiring process and makes it difficult to compete with private-sector utilities trying to recruit the same workers. He said he also favors the creation of a professional board to oversee the department full-time, rather than the part-time commission of political appointees who now do the job.
Yet on the crucial question of that board’s independence, Garcetti appears to be on a collision course with other reform advocates. The mayor said he should retain the power to hire and fire board members, as well as the department’s general manager.
That arrangement, which mirrors the status quo, would be “unacceptable,” City Councilman Felipe Fuentes said. Fuentes, seconded by Council President Herb Wesson and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, proposed a ballot initiative last month that would rewrite the city charter to give the utility greater independence.
While its details have not been finalized, the measure — which probably would go before voters in November — would create an independent, full-time board to oversee the utility and remove mayoral and City Council oversight of most department operations. Fuentes, who chairs the council’s Energy and Environment Committee, has not yet specified whether the board would be elected or appointed.
In either case, Fuentes said Thursday, board members shouldn’t be vulnerable to firing by the mayor or council. He said preserving elected officials’ ability to remove the general manager and board members would perpetuate the kind of political interference his proposal is meant to remedy.
“The bottom line for me is that the current system doesn’t work,” Fuentes said.
Like many of the controversies that preoccupy L.A. City Hall, the topic of DWP governance reform can seem arcane. At its core is the question of whether the department’s loathed bureaucracy would function better if it were overseen by a management team independent from the whims of the city’s elected leaders.
Unlike private and some other public utilities, the department currently operates under the control of the mayor and City Council. As a result, many low-level decisions on the department’s technical operations and contracts must go through City Hall.
Questions about the DWP’s structure have grown more urgent as a series of scandals have buffeted the department since Garcetti took office.
Among them have been the revelation that a pair of questionable nonprofit groups affiliated with the department’s powerful employee union received $40 million from the utility, and the botched rollout of a new billing system that miscalculated many Angelenos’ bills.
In July, the consumer group J.D. Power & Associates ranked the DWP last among large Western power providers in its annual customer satisfaction survey. (Despite such setbacks, the department is currently seeking to raise water and power rates.)
In December, City Controller Ron Galperin released a report by consultants stating that because of DWP’s unusual structure “no single entity has enough insight into or authority over department operations and finances to hold it fully accountable.”
Garcetti cautioned that governance reform shouldn’t be carried so far as to sever the utility’s accountability to city elected officials, who are in turn accountable to voters.
“It’s exactly the right kind of oversight that you elect people to do,” Garcetti said of his ability to appoint and remove top utility officials. “People elect me to make sure the chief of police is the right chief of police. They elect me to make sure I have the right person running the airport.”
The leadership of the DWP, he said, “shouldn’t be protected” from the same accountability.
The council’s Rules Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a DWP ballot measure Friday.