By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Max S. Gerber|
Responding to the L.A. Weekly’s recent expos√© of rampant discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against minority and women employees at the Department of Water and Power, City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski called last week for a review of working conditions at the DWP and an end to secret out-of-court settlements.
Also reacting to political pressure building since the L.A. Weekly’s July 22 cover story (“The Black Avenger”), City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo on Monday overruled city attorneys assigned to the DWP and released nine confidential settlements totaling $6.3 million, which pertain mostly to electrical helpers, line patrolmen and repairmen, who were allegedly subjected to racism and retaliation, then forced to keep quiet. Legal fees to outside law firms defending the DWP in these cases cost the public at least another $2 million. For nine months, the DWP had refused to release the records, in violation of the California Public Records Act.
Acknowledging that several of the settlements had occurred since he took office in 2001 — one as recently as June — Delgadillo vowed a new era of openness. On Monday, speaking at the Public Affairs Forum at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, he conceded the inconsistent policy of responding to public requests for information by his office, and stated his commitment to ending the use of confidential settlements. Announcing the creation of a “Freedom of Information Unit,” he pledged to fully disclose public information, particularly when “The interests of the city bureaucracy compete with the people’s right to know.” Afterward, he said he has assigned special assistant city attorneys to oversee legal operations at the DWP and at the other so-called proprietary airport and harbor departments, which sources in his office have referred to as “graveyards of unaccountability.”
City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who along with Councilman Dennis Zine joined Miscikowski in calling for a review of the DWP’s anti-discrimination policies and a citywide review of the approval process for legal settlements, particularly at the proprietary departments, says, “It is a new day, and all these departments need to know that transparency is key.” Adds Zine, “This is the first I’ve heard of the DWP burying liability cases. It is disturbing this is not being brought to the attention of the City Council. People are paying for these settlements out of their rates.”
While some council members have awakened to millions of public dollars spent on outside lawyers and secret settlements, and while Delgadillo has recognized the need to rein in legal operations at the behemoth utility, those willing to speak out have stepped into the vacuum of power and leadership that has allowed a backward culture to fester in the first place. What was striking in the reactions last week and on Monday was not so much who was calling for action, but who was not. Mayor Jim Hahn, the Hahn-appointed DWP Board of Commissioners and the upper management at DWP all declined to take a stand or present any plan for addressing what critics are calling yet another symptom of old-boy government.
Meanwhile, numerous City Council members ducked the issue, demonstrating a hesitancy to mess with the insular culture of the DWP. “These are sensitive legal matters, and we must defer to the judgment of the city attorney,” says David Gershwin, a spokesman for Council President Alex Padilla. “The proprietary structure of the DWP is such that legal settlements don’t even make it to the City Council,” says a spokesman for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who declined to comment personally. “Tom does not like to comment on things like this,” says a spokesman for Councilman Tom LaBonge. “He likes to comment on positive things.”
As Delgadillo and concerned council members drill deeper at the DWP, they are likely to confront inbred resistance to change. The mantra that has characterized the DWP’s omnipotence — for better and for worse — is: What’s good for the DWP is good for the people of Los Angeles. On Friday, Renette Anderson, the head of the DWP’s Equal Employment Opportunity Section, put the matter in tighter perspective when she said, “I know I’m not going to turn the DWP around in two years. We have behavior that is hard to change. But if we are to grow and survive, we have to change. And where we see red flags, there will be action.”
Anderson is already two years into her assignment, which is to instill mutual respect among employees at all levels. She inherited her job from predecessors who were virtually forced out of the DWP for trying to make it a better place to work. She faces institutional limitations, and she knows it. Anderson is accountable only to acting general manager Henry Martinez and the Board of Commissioners. If there are problems among assistant general mangers, she has no authority to knock heads.
“The board thought I had power over the departments inside the DWP, and that is not so,” she says. “I am responsible for monitoring compliance with equal-opportunity laws, re-training the workforce and recommending discipline. At some point, managers have to take responsibility for implementing change.” Martinez, who recently took over after former acting GM Frank Salas stepped down to chief operating officer, did not comment.