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DWP Charter Reform: Still Not Ready for Prime Time

EASTSIDER--By the time you read this article, the LA City Council will have already decided to put DWP Charter Reform on the November 2016 ballot. The Rules Committee issued their Report and Recommendations last week, and on Tuesday the Council discussed and then adopted recommendations for a November ballot measure.

It is amazing how fast the Council can act when they want to … and put an end to any real public debate! Still, here are the reasons you should read the fine print and kick the tires before voting for this turkey. 

Back in March, the Pat Brown Institute hosted an important forum to talk about the latest round of “reform” of the Department of Water and Power. Aside from Council and Mayoral politics, what the Department itself needs, according to General Manager Marcie Edwards, are two basic changes. 

First, they need delegated authority to be able to execute contracts without months and months of going back and forth with the City Council, ham stringing the process of being able to run a business. And a big business it is, since the DWP is the largest municipal utility in the United States of America. Even though this turned into a big deal, I would ask a simple question -- who do you trust more, the LA City Council or the General Manager of the Department? I know, tough choice, but I think it’s the General Manager hands down. 

Second, the DWP needs the ability to hire and promote quickly to meet staffing problems, as more and more employees are retiring, including key managers, and as they need to quickly respond to short term crises, such as the recent billing problems.. 

For those who were unable to attend the event, the Institute has provided a summary report of the entire event. It’s worth reading. 

Without ever providing a real explanation, the Mayor, the Council Committee on Energy and Environment, and the City Council as a whole, seem to be ‘all in’ for ramming something through right now to put on the November ballot, even if it’s half-baked. My take away from the Pat Brown event was that DWP Reform is Not Ready for Prime Time. 

There are some three pages of actual Charter amendments in the recommendations, as well as some four pages of “Non-Charter Recommendations”, whatever that means. Or, as CityWatch columnists Julie Butcher and Jack Humphreville put it, some 2300 words of you-know-what. Later in this article I’ll go into some detail about all of this stuff thrown at us at the last minute, but for now, let us cut to the chase. 

Remember, what the Department itself says it needs is the ability to execute contracts in a timely fashion, with delegated authority up to a dollar maximum, and relief from the City Personnel/Civil Service bureaucracy to be able to fill positions quickly when needed, particularly managerial jobs and overall vacancies, so that they can respond to customer needs. 

Well, out of the seven major recommendations to be voted on June 7th (Board Structure, General Manager, Board Support, Ratepayer Advocate, Personnel and Hiring, and Monthly Billing), the DWP doesn’t even get half a loaf. There are some unspecified relaxing of the DWP’s ability to let contracts, but that is tied to a four year “strategic and investment plan” which in fact gives the Council more control over the Department than they have now. 

As to the proposed amendment on personnel and hiring, I can only say that my hat’s off to an absolute masterpiece of obfuscation, persiflage, and all round mealymouth platitudes. Clearly, over the years Council President Herb Wesson has mastered the art of writing a lot of words while saying nothing, and he has really outdone himself in this one. 

For example, the “salary setting authority”may” waive some or all of the Civil Service requirements “pursuant to a legally binding collectively bargained MOU”.   Then there are further requirements that the “waivers” would have to maintain “specific merit system standards” Finally the Council “may” but doesn’t have to, even designate the new DWP Board as the “salary setting authority” 

All the ambiguities in this language will likely guarantee years of arm wrestling and litigation between the City and its unions, with absolutely no guarantee that there will be an ultimate outcome any different than the current system. In the interim, the needs of the DWP to relax current Personnel/Civil Service regulations will go nowhere -- it simply lets the City Council off the hook for any responsibility for the mess they are creating. 

The reality is that if you read the words on Charter change for Personnel and Hiring, there is absolutely no guarantee of winding up with any of the reforms that the Department clearly needs in order to fulfill their duties to the ratepayers and function as a 21st century utility. 

Notwithstanding the above, in Monday’s LA Times, Herb Wesson has made it clear that he intends this package to go through as is.

As you can read by the heading, this version of DWP Charter Reform is even less ready for prime time than what came out at the Pat Brown Institute forum. 

What I am having a hard time understanding, though, is why the mad rush to jam something called DWP Reform through on this November’s ballot? To actually address the complex set of issues involved in transforming this huge utility that we all depend on for reliable water and power, the powers that be really better get it right, or the consequences to us, the governed, could be disastrous. 

In terms of politics, you can usually figure these things out -- some politicians are termed out and looking for the next gig, they are desperately trying to avoid big time heat that should properly be directed at them, or there is something buried in the 2300 words that is the real meat of the issue, and we’re not supposed to find it. 

If I had to venture a guess, it would be a combination of deflecting heat for the DWP rate increases (remember half the Council is up for election next year), and finding a way to lock in the transfer fees/Council pet projects that they use to balance the City budget. Remember, if the City loses the current litigation over the transfer fees, it could cost them over $1 billion dollars. 

Nothing like sliding in some language that will allow the City’s outside attorneys to continue litigation for a few more years until the incumbents are all termed out. Remember the Utility Tax debacle?

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You will notice that in the meat of this article I have not addressed the 20 “Non-Charter Recommendations” contained in the Rules Committee Report.   The basic reason is that by definition, any non-Charter Ordinances can be made or changed at any time by the City Council, so they don’t really have anything to do with the Charter changes that will be on the November ballot. 

And a number of these recommendations are silly. For example, they propose to pay the DWP Commissioners $2000/month, which is not going to be anywhere near the going rate for actual folks who understand the ins and outs of public utilities in the State of California. And their Ratepayer Advocate recommendations totally ignore the real need of the Ratepayer Advocate to have their staff positions designated exempt from Civil Service. 

Further, in the Personnel & Hiring section, they provide for the “CAO, the CLA, and the Personnel Department”, along with the DWP to “report back” to the City Council, within 60 days, “with a plan to address the hiring needs of the DWP.” The phrase snow in the wintertime comes to mind. If you can’t implement anything different from the current LA City Civil Service System until all the Charter change requirements are met, exactly what good does a report do? You got it. 

I could go on and on, but very few people would want to read the depressing details. It should be perfectly clear that the big time City Council DWP Charter Reform is simply still not ready for prime time. And nothing in these 2300 words of verbiage answers the question as to why there is this unseemly rush to the ballot box with a half-baked set of maybes. 

Of course I could just be paranoid, and there’s always the old Monty Python shtick about creating the illusion of doing something so the suckers won’t understand what you’re really up to. Or was that Yes, Minister? 

 

(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.)

-cw