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At the house party, a guest brings up the L.A. Times article, asking in the politest way possible how to talk to friends about the charge that she represents Villaraigosa's third term.
"It's much ado about nothing," she says. "You can tell them that Wendy's been an independent controller. I've done a lot of audits that don't make the mayor very happy."
Jack Humphreville has been hounding the DWP since 2007, when the utility proposed a rate increase. Since then, he's been banging out editorials lambasting D'Arcy as the "shadowy, public-be-damned business manager of the IBEW."
Humphreville, who writes the L.A. Watchdog blog for CityWatch, has not been impressed with Greuel's performance as controller. Her audits have taken a few shots at the utility's management team, but she has never challenged the IBEW. In fact, some of the criticisms of DWP management in her audits are shared by the union.
"The issue is not what she's done. It's what she hasn't done," Humphreville says. "She hasn't gone out there and raised hell."
Utility customers love to hate the DWP, especially in the Valley, where air-conditioning bills add up quickly. Disgruntled activists have long been convinced that rate hikes went straight into the pockets of Brian D'Arcy's overpaid workers. Humphreville was one of the early proponents of a ratepayer advocate, who could dig into the utility's books.
Those complaints went exactly nowhere until the DWP leadership made a strategic blunder and got into a nasty dispute with the council. After that episode, Garcetti started pushing for a ratepayer advocate, joined by colleagues who had grown frustrated with the difficulty of getting information from utility leadership.
It was easy to see why this was not in D'Arcy's interests. A ratepayer advocate might start to poke around, do salary surveys and conclude that DWP workers were, in fact, overpaid. So the union boss tried to kill it. He went to every council office to lobby against the idea.
Eventually, though, seeing the momentum behind the idea, D'Arcy offered a compromise. He would agree to the ratepayer advocate — if it were housed in the office of Controller Wendy Greuel. If she were running it, he would feel comfortable with it.
Greuel was not a fan of the ratepayer advocate plan, either. As controller, she had the power to audit the DWP. If anyone were to go poking around the department, it should be she, she argued. An advocate outside her office would, inevitably, dilute her power.
"We thought it was a good idea in the controller's office," Greuel says. "I'm the independent fiscal watchdog."
The mayor and council felt otherwise, largely because D'Arcy and Marvin Kropke, his close ally at IBEW Local 11, had spent $200,000 on an independent campaign to support Greuel in 2009.
Garcetti argues that putting the ratepayer advocate under Greuel's control would have "politicized that job."
"If you want an independent voice, it would be tough if you had independent expenditures from the union the ratepayer advocate needs to comment about," Garcetti says.
D'Arcy and Greuel lost that fight: The advocate was made independent. (D'Arcy did not return calls and emails seeking comment.)
Two years later, Fred Pickel, the ratepayer advocate, produced a report finding D'Arcy's workers make 26 percent more than similar workers at other utilities. Pickel also made a previously unspeakable suggestion: a 10 percent cut in labor costs.
That was bad for D'Arcy, but it didn't make Greuel look good, either. In all of her office's audits of the DWP, she had never made an issue of IBEW salaries.
"It was not transparent at all until this study was done," Pickel says. "It's something that needed to be taken into account."
Of course, no one took up Pickel's recommendation. As he toured council offices, he says, he was told, "Don't have high hopes."
Greuel would rather discuss just about anything other than Brian D'Arcy and the IBEW. She won't even mention his name if she can help it. When asked about the issue of IBEW salaries, she gives her practiced response: "That's someone separate and independent that has nothing to do with my campaign."
Pressed further, she says, "I have told him no, believe it or not, on many occasions. ... Whether you are a business leader or a labor leader, what you want in your mayor is someone who's going to be honest and fair, and that's all you can ask for."
The challenge for a labor leader is not getting pro-labor candidates elected. It's keeping them that way once they're in office. Eric Garcetti is as pro-labor as they come, but there's a reason City Hall union leaders are putting their money behind Greuel and not him: They don't feel they can trust him when the chips are down. An SEIU score sheet revealed by the L.A. Daily News and the L.A. Times gave Greuel a 4.5 out of 5 on the issue of collective bargaining — halfway between "pro-worker" and "strongly pro-worker." Garcetti got a 2.