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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) tried to mend fences with the Los Angeles City Council, which has had few kind words for the department over the last several months.
The DWP Board of Commissioners finally agreed on Tuesday to transfer $73.5 million in reserve funds to the city’s depleted General Fund — a move the department had previously resisted, because the city council refused to go along with a rate increase. In addition, new Interim General Manager, Austin Beutner, visited the city council and answered questions for more than an hour.
Beutner vowed to bring increased transparency to the department.
“Trust begins with engagement and transparency,” Beutner said. “Yesterday, I sat through while the department presented a preliminary budget. I’m sure all the information was in there, but it was in Greek. For those who don’t speak Greek, like myself, we need to put it in English. We’re going to make sure that the average person will understand his or her DWP bill, and that the policymakers will understand. Hopefully, therein lies the foundation for further civil engagement.”
Still, despite wide support for Beutner, councilmembers expressed their frustration with and distrust of the DWP. Many made reference to videos on CBS local news that showed DWP employees drinking while driving department vehicles, and visiting strip clubs while at work.
“We’ve come to a place where we have a bitter taste in our mouths,” said Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, 13th District. “The DWP doesn’t respect the governing structure, and members of the public thinks the department doesn’t respect them.”
Councilmember Tony Cardenas, 6th District, echoed Garcetti’s mistrust.
“The cynical side of me thinks maybe department staff are trying to communicate in Greek on purpose, because they don’t want us to understand details and ask questions to figure out what the heck is going on over there,” Cardenas said. “I chaired a committee that oversaw the Department of Water and Power, and I have never as an elected official experienced such willingness to purposefully withhold information. One of the things I hope you can do is create a willingness to engage in policy dialogue.”
Beutner, who is the ninth different general manager in the last decade at the DWP, will have little time to implement changes. He will hold the general manager job for the next six months, during which time, in addition to running the DWP, he will also lead the search for a new permanent general manager, and continue to serve as a deputy mayor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In addition, despite Beutner’s resolve to change the culture at the department, many questions remain. Councilmember Janice Hahn, 15th District, asked about another $20 million in DWP reserve funds, in addition to the $73.5 million, and whether that too could be transferred to the city’s General Fund. Hahn also asked if Beutner intended to continue with last year’s conservation plan, which limited watering lawns to two days every week, and which many believe led to a number of water main breaks around the city.
In each case, Beutner, who began as DWP general manager only a few days ago, said studies were underway, but he did not yet know the answer.
“We should note that that program worked,” Beutner said of the water conservation effort. “L.A. saved more water than the cities of Santa Monica and Long Beach used combined. We’re not sure if it’s been proven yet that it was correlated with the main breaks. We have an aging infrastructure. We need to come up with a long-term strategy about where we make investments. How do we make sure aqueducts and water are safe and reliable? How do we prepare for state [carbon emissions] legislation that’s on the way? It’s really important that we look at the system as a whole.”
Nor did Beutner address proposed exceptions for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). A city council motion, currently in committee, proposes to exempt LAUSD, which is currently planning to lay off hundreds of teachers in an effort to close a $650 million budget gap, from the electricity rate increases that will begin on July 1.
Fairfax High School Principal, Ed Zubiate, said LAUSD was also negotiating to be allowed to water school fields more often.
“We’ve already gotten in unofficial trouble, because we were watering more than we were supposed to. We had to cut back to Monday and Thursday, and lost all our grass because of it,” Zubiate said. “A lot of schools complained to the district. We can’t maintain fields with this limited budgeting of water, and that’s why the district’s negotiating with the DWP.”
As councilmembers and the public wait for answers to these questions, Beutner urged patience as the department prepares for yet another transition of leadership.
“We need to find the right leader, and in the meantime, I hope to send the department down a path of transparency and accountability,” Beutner said. “Any changes or actions should be measured by results. Until the new leader is on the scene doing work, I encourage everyone to withhold their votes and give him or her a chance to do their job.”
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