Los Angeles leaders voted Wednesday to reappoint Fred Pickel as a watchdog overseeing the Department of Water and Power, over the protests of some environmental and consumer activists who argue that he has failed to speak up for ratepayers.
The sole vote against him was cast by Councilman Paul Koretz, who contended that Pickel should undergo a performance review before getting another term as the executive director of the Office of Public Accountability.
Much of the debate over Pickel has revolved around the expected role of the ratepayer advocate, a job created by voters in 2011 after a clash at City Hall over rate hikes. Under the City Charter, his office is supposed to provide “public independent analysis of department actions as they relate to water and electricity rates.”
Tony Wilkinson, who headed a selection committee that recommended Pickel for a second term, credited him with having the technical expertise to effectively “fact check” the utility. Pickel, a former energy consultant with an MIT doctorate in engineering and economic systems analysis, has written reports scrutinizing rates, outages and utility budgets in his six years on the job.
Former DWP Commissioner William Funderburk said Pickel had produced “objective, market-informed advice” that quietly saved money for L.A. ratepayers, weighing in on disputes over dust mitigation in the Owens Valley and a lawsuit against PricewaterhouseCoopers over the disastrous rollout of a new billing system.
When Funderburk prodded the utility to adopt a new system to track whether all ratepayers were being treated fairly and equitably, Pickel was “indispensable” in winning support with his measured analysis of the plan, he said.
“If we had had a grandstander, if we had had a cheerleader, if we had someone who was working for press quotes over doing the work,” it would not have happened, Funderburk said.
Some critics complain that Pickel has not been an outspoken advocate for ratepayers. Activists from the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog and the environmental group Food & Water Watch have faulted Pickel for backing rate hikes and opining that a controversial project to tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta was "affordable" for L.A. households.
Jasmin Vargas, a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, said Pickel seemed to see green programs such as renewable energy as “kind of supplemental, luxury programs and not necessarily part of his mandate.” Her group was dismayed when Pickel supported a move to downsize plans for a natural gas plant in Utah, rather than insisting on renewable power.
“What we’ve seen him advocate for are the Department of Water and Power positions, not necessarily the ratepayer,” Vargas said.
In recent months, Koretz had chimed in publicly with critics, saying Pickel had routinely “rubber-stamped” utility decisions and operated more like a technical advisor than a ratepayer advocate. The councilman also challenged whether Pickel had violated the City Charter by serving as both executive director and ratepayer advocate, rather than appointing someone else.
Koretz pushed for the city to get an outside consultant to do a performance review for Pickel before giving him another term — a call that Consumer Watchdog echoed at a Tuesday council committee hearing.
“This Office of Public Accountability should not be above public accountability,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court told the council committee. He was later ejected from the meeting after calling out from the audience, attempting to challenge an assertion about whether another candidate vying for the job had gotten an interview.
At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Pickel said Court had “lots of fire and lots of passion” but was short on facts.
In the past, Pickel has repeatedly pointed back to the list of reports on his website when faced with public criticism, rather than sparring over specific points in the media — a reaction emblematic of his understated approach.He declined a request for an interview, saying he “would prefer to wait until after the confirmation process is complete.”
At the Tuesday hearing, Pickel defended some of his positions and laid out some of the issues before the utility in coming years, including technological challenges and environmental goals. A city analyst said that after Pickel was chosen as executive director of the office, city staff determined that he could also be the ratepayer advocate.
Councilman Paul Krekorian said that while he had not always agreed with Pickel, he had “never felt a lack of independence” in his analysis. He argued that if the council were involved in reviewing his performance, it could compromise his independence and politicize the office.
“He shouldn’t care what we have to say,” Krekorian said. “He’s there in order to give us independent advice … whether we like it or not.”
Members of the selection committee, who were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Council President Herb Wesson and Councilwoman Nury Martinez, strenuously defended their choice Tuesday, saying they rigorously vetted dozens of candidates. Committee member Elva Yanez said she was offended that critics had accused them of a “sham process.”
“I don’t do sham processes,” she said.
Yanez said that despite the complaints from Consumer Watchdog and Food & Water Watch, their concerns about Pickel did not seem to be common during the selection process, which included more than a dozen meetings.
“Where are all the other environmental and environmental justice issue organizations who have a problem with Mr. Pickel?” Yanez asked.
Members of the selection committee emphasized that they wanted Pickel to do more to engage the community. Another applicant for the L.A. job told The Times that he could not weigh in on Pickel specifically but said that in general, “being a good advocate requires not only mastery of the analytical work but also being able to effectively communicate and influence.”
“To actually be an advocate, you’ve got to build coalitions and exercise influence and be in the public sphere, calling out when you think that the decisions being made are harmful to ratepayers,” said Max Gomberg, who worked previously for the Office of Ratepayer Advocates at the California Public Utilities Commission and said he interviewed for the L.A. job.
Three years ago, outside consultants assessing how the DWP is governed wrote that the ratepayer advocate faced “continuous political pressure” from city and utility officials. They did not criticize Pickel personally but concluded that the job itself was “stuck in a ‘no man’s land,’ as it is neither a regulator nor a truly independent advisor.”