On Tuesday, some of Los Angeles County’s most prominent labor and community leaders were out demonstrating in support of a troubling idea: that the public has no right to know how public money is spent. Transparency, apparently, is not so important in Los Angeles government.
The labor leaders joined a rally of Department of Water and Power employees, whose union has steadfastly refused to release financial records showing how $40 million in ratepayer funds have been spent over the last decade. The money was given to two nonprofit trusts for the purpose of advising utility managers on safety and training issues. The trusts are co-managed by appointees of the DWP and leaders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, the union that represents most of the utility’s workforce.
But the publicly funded nonprofits have operated with no accountability or transparency, and it’s unclear what they have done with the money. Has it been well spent or wasted? Has safety been enhanced or are these merely slush funds? City Controller Ron Galperin sought to audit the nonprofits, something that is specifically allowed in the agreements that created them. But IBEW Business Manager Brian D’Arcy has refused to turn over the documents, even after an L.A. Superior Court judge ruled that the controller has the authority to perform the audit and ordered the documents released. Instead, D’Arcy appealed and a judge stayed the lower court’s order.
This is the issue that organized labor has chosen to rally around? This fight isn’t about collective bargaining rights or about the welfare of workers, who unquestionably deserve effective safety and training programs. It’s about transparency and the principle that city leaders must ensure public money is spent properly.
The fact is, the mayor, City Council and Board of Water and Power commissioners have failed to oversee the trusts since they were created in 2000 and 2002. It was only after The Times reported on the trusts in September that city leaders asked for an accounting, which has been repeatedly stonewalled by the IBEW. Now, the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, which controls the purse strings for the utility, is exploring whether it can legally stop the annual $4-million payment to the nonprofit institutes until an audit is completed.
The IBEW is trying to portray city leaders’ newfound sense of fiscal responsibility as an attack on the union, and as an effort to undermine the workers’ contract with the city. But that’s not the case. City officials are simply asking the questions they should have asked from the start.