By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Former DWP General Manager David Freeman has a glimmering dream for the city of Los Angeles. “When you fly into L.A., all you will see is solar panels,” Freeman says in the Southern drawl he carried all the way from his job running the Tennessee Valley Authority utility giant, to Los Angeles.
Freeman has run the country’s biggest power districts, including the New York Power Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority. He thinks that the widely criticized upcoming March ballot measure to launch a solar megaproject on the city’s rooftops, can work.
But Freeman, now retired from the utility business and serving on the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, also acknowledges that powerful factions in City Hall, including a union representing DWP workers, which holds sway over the L.A. City Council, have fed a strong negative reaction to the project.
In November, the City Council unanimously — and hurriedly — passed a resolution adding Measure B to the March 3 ballot. The vaguely outlined idea proposes to undertake the most ambitious solar-energy initiative in the country, draping 1,500 acres of DWP-installed solar panels across roofs and parking lots.
But the unusual speed of the decision, apparent lack of transparency, huge costs to Los Angeles residents and virtual absence of serious public debate drew instant criticism from local media, City Controller Laura Chick and concerned citizens.
A December article by Los Angeles Times writer David Zahniser clearly showed that Council President Eric Garcetti had disregarded the secret findings of a consultancy firm on the city payroll that the plan would cost far more than the $1.5 billion the Council had suggested, and was fraught with risk to Los Angeles taxpayers.
“It’s not like me to criticize the bureaucracy,” Freeman says. “But it’s no secret that the L.A. local government is perfectly capable of screwing up a two-car funeral.”
More than just screwing up, critics saw the hasty project from nowhere as something more sinister. On Larry Mantle’s “Air Talk” radio show aired December 23, City Controller Chick bristled at the extremely unusual speed with which the multibillion-dollar plan was placed before voters — by a City Council famous for spending long afternoons discussing the perils of fast food. “When you’re cutting deals and you don’t want to discuss details in public. that’s not in the best interest of the public,” Chick complained.
City Hall observers and Los Angeles activists demanded to know who stood to gain the most from an unusually rushed decision to put it on the ballot. Many critics began pointing to a politically connected union that employs about 8,000 Department of Water and Power workers — and that openly brags about its aggressiveness in getting its way inside City Hall.
“Nothing is done [by management] at the DWP without the union’s direct participation and approval,” alleges Joel Davidson, a solar-power consultant for 30 years. The union is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), whose motto is, “If provoked, we will strike.”
Measure B calls for DWP to install, and own, the solar panels that will cover Los Angeles roofs. Davidson, who worked on DWP solar plans with Freeman in the late ’90s, says DWP has “aggressively pursued the solar market because they are concerned about losing it to the private sector.”
The DWP is a political power in its own right because its profits — earned from Los Angeles residents and businesses — pump nearly $175 million dollars into the city’s general fund. That’s a strong political force weighing on the City Council, which always wants more money.
Measure B spokeswoman Sarah Leonard dismisses criticism of the DWP and its powerful IBEW union as a monopoly that pushes around the City Council. But dozens of private solar-panel installers in the burgeoning solar industry will be all but cut out of the bonanza in installation work under Measure B — leading critics to fear that the hurried nature of this deal was custom-designed to bolster the size and political power of IBEW.
DWP critic Jack Humphreville and a handful of other activists wrote the “con” argument for the March ballot, asserting that the project is a ruse having little to do with smart energy policy, and everything to do with growing the size and power of the union and DWP.
The IBEW fired back against such activists, bringing together a Who’s Who of labor, political and environmental honchos who formally asked the courts to throw out the “con” ballot argument. Last week, a judge denied the effort to squelch the con argument — a defeat for Mitchell Schwartz, who filed the petition to toss it out. Schwartz was Barack Obama’s California campaign director and is president of the California League of Conservation Voters.
Schwartz spun the numerous attacks on Measure B as an attack on unions, telling L.A. Weekly, “Union jobs are great.”
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