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Panel recommends another term for DWP watchdog

Panel recommends another term for DWP watchdog
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) building. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A committee tapped to choose a watchdog to scrutinize the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power unanimously recommended Thursday that the city give Fred Pickel another term.

Pickel, a former energy consultant with a doctorate in engineering and economic systems analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has served as ratepayer advocate for more than six years.

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He was the first person chosen to serve in the job, which was created after a City Hall clash over rate increases.

Pickel said Thursday that he was honored to be nominated by the committee.

In recent years, he has faced sharp criticism from Consumer Watchdog and the environmental group Food & Water Watch, which have faulted his recommendations on rate hikes and other utility issues. Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz recently said he had been disappointed with Pickel, complaining that he had “generally rubber-stamped everything the city is doing.”

Others have praised his analysis: Jack Humphreville, who heads a committee focused on the utility that is affiliated with neighborhood councils, has credited Pickel and his work with saving Angelenos money by prompting the department to seek a smaller hike in rates than it had originally planned.

Pickel himself has pointed back to his reports on power outages, budgets, solar programs and other utility operations in reaction to public criticism.

To decide who would fill the job, Los Angeles formed a selection committee whose members were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson and Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who heads a council committee focused on energy and environmental issues.

When asked about the decision Thursday, committee head Tony Wilkinson, who also serves as president of the North Hills East Neighborhood Council, said that to effectively “fact check” the department, the ratepayer advocate needed to have the right “academic and commercial experience” and ability to do financial analysis.

“You have to have deep and broad understanding of the water and power system in order to make your recommendations credible,” Wilkinson said Thursday.

Under city codes, the City Council and the mayor must confirm the decision.

The ratepayer advocate is supposed to "provide public independent analysis of department actions as they relate to water and electricity rates,” according to the City Charter. Outside consultants warned three years ago, however, that the job has been “stuck in a ‘no man's land,’ as it is neither a regulator nor a truly independent advisor.”

Pickel, whose initial term ended more than a year and a half ago, continued to serve on an interim basis during the search. Before the decision was announced, Consumer Watchdog had publicly questioned whether the city was engaged in a “sham process” engineered to reappoint Pickel.

The group specifically questioned why one applicant, former state Assemblyman Mike Gatto, had not gotten a phone call or an interview after submitting his application.

“You all knew what you were doing before you started. Shame on you,” Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog told the committee Thursday after the decision was announced.

Wilkinson said the panel had engaged in a thorough and rigorous vetting process that included broad outreach and had reviewed resumes from more than 30 applicants.

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He did not specifically address why the panel did not choose Gatto or any other specific candidate, but said that while there were “wonderful people” with “very good understanding of the policy issues,” not everyone who applied had the right experience in financial analysis or other qualifications to credibly examine claims being made by the utility.

Wilkinson added that although he was impressed with analysis that Pickel had done to moderate and scrutinize rate increases, he hoped that in the future, the office would do more to engage the public and translate its work for ordinary people, “to have some of the complex decisions simplified and made more understandable for ratepayers.”

City staffers said Thursday that they did not know when the decision would come before a City Council committee or the entire council.

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