An Open Letter to Dan Schnur on his DWP Inspector General Proposal

EASTSIDER-Back in late January, CityWatch colleague Jack Humphreville posted an article on the proposal for a DWP Inspector General, which you can find here.  

In the article, he reprinted a January letter from Mr. Schnur to the Mayor giving his preliminary thoughts and direction for an IG, as well as a solicitation for comments. In the main, he is proposing “to develop a more efficient and coordinated oversight structure that can protect against potential malfeasance. Toward those ends, I will recommend the creation of a Joint Oversight Committee co-chaired by the DWP Inspector General and Ratepayer Advocate.” 

So, here is my input (which I am also sending to Jack for forwarding to Garcetti’s consultant, Mr. Schnur) as requested in Mr. Schnur’s letter: 

With all due respect, I believe that the proposal is unnecessary, and simply redirects legitimate anger aimed the Mayor and the City Attorney for misusing the DWP for their own purposes and creates a straw man to redirect ratepayers’ anger. 

Ready, Fire, Aim! 

Late last year after Mayor Garcetti made his announcement of establishing a DWP Inspector General, I questioned the motives of the Mayor in setting up yet another unnecessary body to take the heat off of himself, particularly over the litigation mess concerning the DWP Billing System rollout. 

EASTSIDER-In the aftermath of Eric Garcetti and Mike Feuer’s pitiful attempts to cover up their complicity in the DWP billing litigation, now they want us to focus on a new bright shiny object -- appointing an Inspector General for DWP. Nice try. 

Nothing in the proposals by Mr. Schnur changes that assessment. 

DWP Charter Reform Set the Stage 

The last significant discussion we ratepayers had about significant DWP reform was back in 2016, when there was a push for a major change in the relationship between the Council, the Mayor, and the council-controlled Department of Water and Power. 

I wrote a series of articles for CityWatch about these reforms. Probably the best piece in terms of what wound up on the ballot, was this June 16, 2016 article called “DWP Charter Reform: Still Not Ready for Prime Time.” 

My takeaway was: 

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.” 

Ultimately, the Measure failed, leaving the Mayor and the Council holding the bag. You can read about it here, and the takeaway was: 

“EASTSIDER-Hats off to my friends in the labor movement, particularly AFSCME and SEIU -- they managed to block DWP Reform Measure RRR, even though most everything else passed in the LA City Special Municipal Election. Life should get interesting, now that RRR is gone. As a result, the LA City Council and the Mayor own the DWP, no change, and nowhere to hide.” 

Leave the Ratepayer Advocate Out! 

What did ultimately come out of the DWP Charter Reform was the establishment of a Ratepayer Advocate, set up as a technical analysis function to weigh in on rates. 

Schnur’s current proposal makes the Ratepayer Advocate part of an “oversight” function, along with an Inspector General, to supposedly ferret around searching for “alleged malfeasance.” As such, this is an investigatory and supervisory function which is at odds with the actual DWP Charter Reform that created the Ratepayer Advocate with a limited function. 

The Ratepayer Advocate’s Office exists to work in conjunction with the Department, and to obtain information which allows them to form an opinion regarding initiatives and proposed rate changes. I should perhaps note here that the Ratepayer Advocate’s Office does not have the authority to compel the DWP to provide data and information which can then be used to form an opinion telling the Department what they can or cannot do. That issue didn’t make it into the final language. 

This was a deliberate choice in limiting the authority of the RPA. To now make them a part of an adversarial oversight system would arguably be in violation of the Charter amendment that created them. I have covered the history and deliberate de-fanging of the Ratepayer Advocate before, and outlined the deliberately limited function of the 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”  

That’s it. Full stop. There is actually nothing in the statute which compels the Department to even assist or give any particular information to the Ratepayer Advocate. It is to his credit that Dr. Pickel has been able to forge relationships within the Department to co-operatively obtain and evaluate information which allows him to provide a robust technical opinion as to DWP rates. 

And if that was not enough, the mandate of the Ratepayer Advocate ends with a report to the DWP Board of Commissioners giving his opinion. The members of this commission are all appointed by the Mayor. For real. 

I believe that to put the Ratepayer Advocate in an adversarial position would be contrary to the Charter and no doubt generate pushback within the DWP staff that he is a cop instead of a technical professional with no personal axe to grind. 

And How About the Public Records Issue? 

Truth is, the best defense against shenanigans by any political body is an informed and vigilant citizenry. If we want to keep an eye out on the DWP Board, the key lies in their Agenda and supporting documents, which can be analyzed and questioned prior to any final vote. Here the DWP Board gets an “F”, and I have opined before that it is a very deliberate act: 

“While I’m at it, in terms of how the DWP Board actually functions as a rubber stamp for Mayor Garcetti, I took a look at some of their agendas. They don’t pass the smell test.  

As goofy as the City Council is, they hide the details of their actions by burying us in meetings and documents which become incomprehensible to the normal person. A prime example is the Council File System, which actually works well if you can match a Council File with what they want to do. 

In the case of the DWP, they do it the old-fashioned way by simply hiding documents in plain sight.   For example, let’s look at the recent September 24 Board Meeting Agenda.   

There are four (4) pages of “Items for Approval.” But there is no real, meaningful description of the Items, and there is no link to find them. 

These are the same tactics that the old CRA/LA used to hide from plain sight how they really were spending the hundreds of millions of dollars through shell advisory committees. A subversion of the spirit of open meeting and public records requirements in State law. 

So how about making the supporting documents electronically available prior to the actual DWP Board meeting, so that we can download and read them (or at least skim the monster sized ones) prior to the Board meeting, and weigh in with factual information? 

If the regular news media won’t do it, there are plenty of us on CityWatch who will. And it doesn’t require setting up a new taxpayer-paid Inspector General function. 

The Takeaway 

In fact, there are three things that would go a lot further to help ratepayers, and they wouldn’t even cost much money. 

First, make sure that supporting documents for DWP Agendas are available to the public for a reasonable time period before the Board Meetings. Second, there needs to be a firewall between the City Attorney and DWP’s Attorney. No City Attorney should be directly in a position to decide who gets hired as the DWP’s attorney in litigation, and then decide how that plays with the City’s attorney in the same litigation. 

Also, we need a firewall between the Mayor, and the DWP’s General Manager, and Board. Hire/appoint them, cool, but then keep your cotton-picking hands off the scale, unless you really like personal flack when you get outed in a big case. 

So. I believe that the whole idea of an Inspector General overlay to the DWP is in fact a sleight of hand which simply puts another layer of government in place without addressing the real reason the Mayor came up with the idea -- a dereliction of duty to the ratepayers by the Mayor himself, as well as the elected City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles, Mike Feuer. 

And think about the effect on morale within the DWP staff. They get paid to provide us with reliable power and water at a reasonable cost and do one hell of a good job. Don’t mess up their morale.

(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.