Mon, Aug

Why is Everyone Pickin’ on Pickel?

EASTSIDER-All of a sudden, there seems to be an entire spate of articles attacking the DWP Ratepayer Advocate, Fred Pickel. The theme seems to embrace a lot of trigger words like “weak,” “gutless,” “pawn of the industry,” “secret double agent,” “useless,” and so on. As readers of CityWatch should know, I am not a fan of the establishment, but I’m trying to understand: why this sudden criticism? Why now? And of all people, why Fred Pickel? 

Here’s why the issue is important. Folks need to turn off their afterburners and slow down for a moment: the position of Ratepayer Advocate, as adopted by the voters in 2011, is, by definition, a very limited position. Those of us who were a part of the Neighborhood Council DWP Committee, LANCC, or who served on Neighborhood Councils at the time, will recall that we were all fed up. We wanted a fire-breathing, rip-roarin’, independent citizen advocate with power and authority to do something about the enormous fraud being perpetrated on us by the Mayor and the City Council by using the DWP as a giant piggy bank for extracting money, as well as a repository to dump the fiscal responsibility for pet projects (and sometimes City employees with their pension obligations). 

But as usually happens in LA politics, most of the fire and substance we wanted so badly was gutted in the final language of the 2011 Charter Amendment LA-I: DWP Ratepayer Advocate. Looking at the language, you can see how the political class cleverly eviscerated most of the firepower that was originally intended by the troops. Briefly, it does the following: 

● Sets up a Department (Office of Public Accountability) charged with “independent analysis and assessment” regarding water and power rates; 

● Sets up an Executive Director for the Department called the Ratepayer Advocate; 

● Sets up a Citizens Selection Committee to appoint the Executive Director for a 5-year term, subject to confirmation by the City Council and the Mayor; 

● Requires the Executive Director “report to, but not be directed by, the Board of Water and Power Commissioners” (all of whom are appointed by the Mayor); 

● Funds the OPA Budget to the tune of 0.025% of DWP’s annual water and electricity revenues (around a million dollars); 

● Has the Budget for the OPA established by annual Ordinance, which means that it goes through the usual City Budget process. 

Now, pardon me for being cynical, but as a recovering bureaucrat, there are more fixes built into this deal than in a rigged Civil Service Examination (not, of course, that the City would ever do such a thing). Needless to say, once the powers-that-be were content that the Ratepayer Advocate could do no harm, the Amendment passed with over 77% of the less than 12% of registered voters voting. 

Further, and just to make absolutely sure that the system was safe, the Council and the Mayor fooled around for almost a year before they finally appointed Dr. Fred Pickel to the position. And in another “only in LA moment,” this just happened to be the same time that the Council voted to approve a rate increase for the DWP. A coincidence, of course. When the Good Doctor reported his circumstances to the DWP Committee, we found that the City had bought themselves another year by failing to get him a real office and delaying his ability to hire any staff. 

Fred Pickel more than met the stated criteria for the position. He has a PhD from MIT in Engineering and Economics System Analysis and he ran his own LA company, Wilshire Energy Consulting Group that specialized in the power and gas industries. Therefore, the appointment was safe: he was unlikely to do anything particularly embarrassing (an absolute job requirement under the Charter), and the choice provided someone with extensive technical competence (in my view, a nice but unintended outcome). As to why he even took the job, you’d have to ask Dr. Pickel. 

In short, the odds of hiring a real fire-breather to become the Ratepayer Advocate was about as likely as Tom Hayden becoming the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles. 

In the first real test of his authority, Dr. Pickel recommended to the DWP Board in 2013 that they hold off on the solar feed-in-tariff program on the grounds that it could double the bills of ratepayers in the next decade. The DWP Board blew him off and went ahead with the program -- just like the Charter says they can. 

Keeping in mind the historical context of weakening of the purported power and authority of the Ratepayer Advocate’s job, why the sudden attacks against Dr. Pickel? In truth, as a part of the DWP Committees, I have found him to be very technically competent; he works well within the system to try and affect changes to DWP programs before they go public and end up in the political domain of the one who’s got the votes – the Mayor, of course, since he appoints the entire DWP Board. 

While I certainly do not have enough technical expertise in the water and power industries to evaluate Dr. Pickel, as near as I can tell, he is respected by the troops that actually have to run the Department -- as opposed to the politicians who are in charge. And, by the way, those troops are pretty good. 

So who led this attack? Well, it seems it was started by a Consumer Watchdog group out of the Republic of Santa Monica who recently wrote a letter to the Mayor and the City Attorney telling them to fire Dr. Pickel. 

You will have to excuse me, but when our neighbors to the west suddenly decide to help us poor misguided Angelenos, I generally check to make sure that my wallet’s still there, and then wonder why they are so interested in “helping” us. 

Anyhow, the LA Times picked up on the article, and wrote their own; and our own Paul Hatfield weighed in.  I’m not quite sure what his article had to do with the Ratepayer, since his key point was: “Pickel would be more effective as an adviser to an advocate who truly knows how to communicate with and engage the public and the media.” 

The problem is, the Charter Amendment simply does not provide for any of this, so I think it’s a bit unfair to say Fred Pickel is failing us when, under the terms of the Charter, he’s not even allowed to do what Mr. Hatfield wants him to do. The system, as created in the fine print, is doing just what it was intended to do. 

And finally, of course, we have ex-Councilmember Dennis Zine’s article. Mr. Zine want’s the Ratepayer to be more vociferous in beating up on the DWP for its problematic billing system. Again, that role is simply not in the Charter, although in the case of Mr. Zine, I understand the “why” of his article -- anything to deflect anger or criticism away from his shadow employer, Brian D’Arcy of IBEW fame, who’s still sore over outsourcing all that lovely money. 

To the point -- with the exception of politicians who are by definition fair game -- political discourse should be about ideas, instead of character assassination, unless someone has done something really naughty. So maybe the next time our friends in the Republic of Santa Monica, the LA Times, and even some of my CityWatch buddies get all revved up and decide to do a hit job on somebody -- just maybe they might consider doing a bit of research … and fact checking before they shoot. I’ve been told that it’s a better way to hit your target.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 13 Issue 96

Pub: Nov 26, 2015


Tags: Tony Butka, Ratepayer Advocate, DWP, Neighborhood Councils, LA City Council, Dr. Fred Pickel