At the end of a year in which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) has come to be considered something of a public enemy, the city council on Tuesday moved to establish an agency to oversee the public utility.
The new Office of Public Accountability would have broad authority over the department, responsible for approving rate increases, evaluating management performance, and investigating corruption within the department.
The council voted unanimously on Tuesday to direct the city attorney to draft an amendment to the city charter, which voters would have to approve in the city elections next March.
“[The] DWP is in need of fundamental reform,” said City Council President Eric Garcetti, 13th District, who has been the council’s most outspoken proponent of efforts to reform the DWP. “We took action on clear fixes to significant problems at DWP and continued moving forward on other reforms.”
“We’re here to protect the public,” Garcetti said.
The push to reform the DWP began this spring, when the department refused to transfer funds to the city’s depleted general fund unless the council agreed to a rate increase. Since then, charges of misconduct and corruption in the department have also come to light. Most recently, two DWP employees were accused last week of defrauding the utility by making up costs for office furniture and pocketing the money.
Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner was installed as interim general manager of the DWP in April while the department works to find a permanent successor. Beutner has supported the idea of a “ratepayer advocate” who would oversee rate increases at the DWP, which Beutner has said will be necessary for the department to comply with water quality regulations and fund infrastructure repairs. Water main breaks have plagued the city for the last two years.
“We want to better inform our ratepayers of what the department does,” Beutner said. “We believe additional transparency in the department is going to help provide for better governance and oversight.”
Still, obstacles remain before a new oversight board could take effect — a testament to the bureaucratic challenges of reforming one of the largest public utilities in the country. The DWP has an annual budget of about $4 billion.
For one, the council has still yet to decide what form the new oversight board should take. Councilmember Paul Krekorian, 2nd District, suggested that the mayor, the council and the neighborhood councils each appoint four members to a 12-member board.
Lawmakers also debated other reforms to the DWP, such as how many commissioners sit on the DWP board, and how they are appointed. One plan expands the board from five members to seven, all appointed by the mayor; another shares that responsibility between the mayor and city council.
“I think the mayor has too much power, and control of this board,” said Councilmember Paul Koretz, 5th District. “It makes sense to split authority between the council and the mayor.”
And voters will still have to approve a ballot initiative to amend the city charter.
Beutner suggested that the reforms could be accomplished without amending the city charter, but the council went forward with the plan to put the measure up for a vote. They must finalize reform proposals by November 17 if the measures are to make it onto the March ballot.
Even if voters approve the ballot initiative, reforms of the DWP remain months away. In the meantime, Beutner said that the search for a permanent general manager for the DWP should be completed within a matter of weeks.
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