Suspicious of Los Department of Water and Power rate hikes and frustrated that the city-owned utility was treated like a political football, residents in 2011 voted to create a ratepayer advocate.
What they’ve gotten is a ratepayer analyst.
That’s because Fred Pickel, the first person picked to serve as the DWP’s watchdog and to lead the Office of Public Accountability, has adopted a studious, technical, nonconfrontational style.
His underwhelming approach suited the job, at least at first. For years the utility was often mired in tumultuous politics, including a 2010 fight between then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council over electricity rates that threatened to bankrupt the city. All that discord and distrust had a corrosive effect, making it hard to have a rational conversation on what the utility needed to do and what ratepayers should have to pay to provide reliable, environmentally responsible water and power.
A longtime energy industry consultant, Pickel has helped take some of the politics out of major DWP decisions by providing independent and impartial analysis. But now that he has been nominated and will likely be appointed by the council to a new five-year term, he needs to embrace the “advocate” in his title.
Pickel and his office have laid out needed reforms that would help modernize the utility, but he’s rarely been an outspoken champion for change. His recommendations are buried in technical reports, and he prefers working behind the scenes to nudge the utility toward more efficient, responsible business practices.
Critics say Pickel has been a rubber stamp on the DWP because he supported rate hikes and backed a new contract for utility workers that raised salaries. The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog argued it would be better to eliminate the position than to pick Pickel for another term.
Pickel will never be the firebrand activists want, but he also can’t shy from tackling controversial issues head-on. The DWP has to catch up on decades of deferred maintenance while also making the investments needed to meet green energy and water conservation goals. But the utility struggles to deliver because of multiple layers of political and bureaucratic bosses and binding union rules.
Some of Pickel’s reluctance to make waves may be a result of the ambiguity of his position — he’s neither a regulator nor an independent advisor. Ultimately, though, the Office of Public Accountability’s power and relevance depends on the ratepayer advocate’s ability to persuade. That means grabbing the bully pulpit, calling out for change and putting public pressure on DWP managers, the mayor and the council when they move too slowly. Pickel can’t stay behind the scenes.