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Yes on Measures I and J

Last spring, leaders of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power used a tactic that looked an awful lot like extortion, telling the City Council that unless it approved a generous rate hike, the utility would be forced to withhold $73.5 million it had promised to transfer to city coffers. The move infuriated L.A. residents and touched off a prolonged political battle over control of the utility. Measures I and J represent the council’s effort to prevent this from happening again.

Measure J would add a provision to the City Charter requiring the DWP to coordinate its budgeting process with the city’s, a move intended to avoid any more 11th-hour surprises. The utility would have to submit a preliminary budget to the City Council by March 31 for its coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The measure would also make it much harder for the DWP to renege on its annual commitment to transfer surplus money to the city’s general fund. There is no organized opposition to this measure and, because it should smooth the budgeting process for the city, it’s easy to support.

More contentious, but not much, is Measure I, which would create a position of “ratepayer advocate,” whose office would monitor the DWP’s accounts. In principle, this is a fine idea, and past due; according to City Councilman Eric Garcetti, the DWP is the largest municipal utility in the country that doesn’t already have such an overseer. The council is charged with filling in the details of this measure later, such as who appoints the advocate and to whom he or she reports, but apparently plans to empower local residents by involving voluntary neighborhood councils in the decisions. We hope the council will also help ensure that the advocate selected is a well-regarded professional with deep expertise in utility operations; voters and lawmakers need solid advice on balancing the DWP’s need to invest in clean power with its need to keep rates under control, not a populist interested solely in blocking rate hikes.

We have misgivings about whether a ratepayer advocate can do much to fix the DWP. The advocate would be charged with examining proposed rate increases and reporting back to the utility’s board, the City Council and neighborhood councils about their fiscal necessity. But it’s unclear whether the advocate would be more successful in opening up the DWP’s impenetrable finances and practices than past auditors and consultants have been. Moreover, appointing an advocate would do nothing to solve the utility’s most serious structural problem: Too much power has been placed in the hands of the mayor, who appoints the DWP board and can fire its general manager at will. The mayor, along with the council, would also be charged with confirming the nominee for ratepayer advocate.

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We’d be a lot happier with the council’s DWP reforms if they included a measure to make the board more independent. But we’ll take what we can get. Measure J will forestall future gamesmanship on budgeting, and Measure I, if properly implemented, might bring a degree of transparency to the utility’s operations that could build public trust. Angelenos should vote yes on both.


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