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DWP Measure on L.A. City Ballot

Los Angeles DWP Headquarters at sunset. Photo by Richard Schneider.
Los Angeles DWP Headquarters at sunset. Photo by Richard Schneider.

By ELIZABETH HSING-HUEI CHOU

City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Richard Alarcon and Greig Smith today joined a growing group of former members of the City Council who have come out strongly against a relatively obscure city measure aimed at changing the governance structure and hiring practices of the Department of Water and Power.

Alarcon and Smith issued a joint statement saying Los Angeles Charter Amendment RRR (**see full text below), which is on the November ballot, "takes away voters' decision- making powers and gives it to unelected bureaucrats."

"Plus, it allows these bureaucrats to opt out of the widely praised civil service hiring process," the two former council members said.

The ballot measure was backed by the City Council and DWP officials who have said it will improve the way the public utility is run.

Specifically, the measure would change the process for how contracts are awarded and rates are set, as well as increase the citizen board overseeing the department from five to seven members. The measure would also allow for changes in the future to allow the hiring of DWP workers to opt out of existing civil service rules.

Alarcon and Smith's opposition was announced by Neighborhoods Against the DWP Power Grab, a group largely funded by SEIU Local 721, a union that represents city employees.

A point of contention during the City Council's public hearings on the issue was a provision that would allow the DWP employees to potentially opt out of the civil service system. Representatives of city employee unions, among them SEIU Local 721, balked at the idea that DWP jobs would be removed from the civil service pool.

Other former elected officials who are working with the group to defeat the measure include former Councilwoman and Controller Laura Chick, and Councilmen Nate Holden, Hal Bernson, Robert Farrell and Dennis Zine.

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"This is crazy," Holden said of the measure. "We know this is crazy -- we would have never done this at all" if he and the other former members were still on the council.

Holden said the measure reminds him of policies that deregulated state utilities in the 1990s, a move that was later blamed for rolling blackouts and higher rates.

"I'm not going to stand by and let the same thing happen to the ratepayers," Holden said. "That's why I'm so upset about it. I'm going to urge and encourage the voters of this city to not give away their power."

Holden called the ballot measure a "scheme" that could force the City Council to sign off on unexpected rate hikes in situations in which DWP officials have "mismanaged their affairs" and entered into bad contracts that is making it difficult to balance the utility's budget.

The shift of power to the board would also absolve elected officials of having to take the blame for how the DWP operated, Holden said.

Also on the opposition committee are actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., UC Irvine law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, William D. Smart Jr. of the Fix L.A. Coalition, and National Organization for Women California President Jerilyn Stapleton.

Representatives for Mayor Eric Garcetti, who supports the measure, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There does not appear to be a campaign committee actively working to get the measure passed.

When the ballot language was being considered in June, Garcetti gave the measure a somewhat tepid endorsement, saying that it represented city leaders delivering on a promise to move forward a "reform package" that does part of the job.

Garcetti said the measure would turn the DWP into a "utility that is nimble, efficient and prepared to meet the 21st century needs of our residents."

"A modern department must have more flexibility to hire and maintain a strong and accountable board," Garcetti said. "While there is still more work to be done, I look forward to this measure being finalized so that voters can have their say."

The argument in favor of the measure, written by ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel, gave a more forceful endorsement by faulting the existing DWP as remaining an "example of bureaucratic inefficiency for too long."

Pickel wrote that the measure would result in more "accountability and oversight at DWP," and require the DWP to put together four-year strategic plans. He wrote that the measure would actually "curb rate increases" and "cut red tape in contracting and hiring, making it faster, more transparent and accountable."

Signers of the pro-argument include representatives of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Pacoima Beautiful, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association and neighborhood council groups.

*RRR – CITY OF LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT OF WATER AND POWER (DWP). CHARTER AMENDMENT RRR. Shall the Charter be amended to: (1) add qualification requirements, stipends and removal protections for DWP Board; (2) expand Board to seven members; (3) require DWP prepare four-year Strategic Plans for Council and Mayoral approval; (4) modify DWP’s contracting, rate-setting and other authority; (5) permit future alternatives to existing civil service standards for DWP employees through collective bargaining; and (6) require monthly billing?

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