Councilman Fuentes Scurries Away When Asked About DWP Controversy

Felipe Fuentes addresses an audience during his campaign.
Felipe Fuentes addresses an audience during his campaign.
Via Felipe Fuentes for City Council

L.A. City Councilman Felipe Fuentes has invited the public to join a conversation about his plan to restructure the Department of Water and Power. But when asked by a reporter if he had a moment to talk about those plans on Thursday, he was in no mood to talk.

"Actually I don't," he said. "You can call Cheryl and talk to her."

Fuentes remained silent when asked follow-up questions as he exited down a stairwell.

Fuentes was at Van Nuys City Hall to present his plan to change the governance of the DWP, the much-loathed utility that provides water and power to Los Angeles residents. Fuentes has pitched the plan as a means to reduce "political interference" at the utility.

But when asked for an example of such interference, he did not have an answer. His spokeswoman, Cheryl Getuiza, also did not respond to an email posing the same question.

Fuentes' proposal would indeed insulate the utility from political oversight. The mayor would no longer be able to hire and fire the general manager. The DWP commission would serve staggered terms, insulating it from political controversies. The City Council would no longer be required to approve utility rates — removing an obstacle to steep rate hikes.

The argument for such reform is that it would allow the DWP to function more like a business.

"My idea is to make it run as efficiently as possible, to give it enough independence so it can act quicker," council president Herb Wesson said in an interview after the meeting. "We need to come up with a way to make the department function more efficiently. That should be the motivating factor."

Under the administration of Mayor Eric Garcetti, DWP "reform" has generally meant pushing back against the entrenched influence of the utility's union, IBEW Local 18, and its business manager, Brian D'Arcy. When asked if he thought that was what reform should be about, Wesson said, "Not really."

The role of the DWP union did not come up in the two-hour hearing on Thursday. No one from IBEW Local 18 appeared or spoke at the hearing. Representatives of several other city unions did appear, however, to voice strong opposition to a key aspect of Fuentes' proposal.

Fuentes wants to remove the utility from the city's civil service system. That would allow the DWP to establish its own hiring and promotion system, through negotiation with IBEW. The leaders of the city employee unions spoke strongly against that, saying it would make DWP less transparent and less accountable.

Severing the DWP from the city's personnel system would also make it harder for city workers to get hired at the DWP, which generally pays much better than other city departments. It would effectively limit the hiring pool for DWP vacancies to current IBEW members, making it much easier for IBEW members to get promoted. During contract negotiations, it also would be much harder to compare DWP salaries to salaries of other city workers, removing an argument for restraining DWP raises.

D'Arcy has not commented publicly on the proposal. A spokesman has said he is "tracking" it.

One City Hall insider, who asked not to be named, said the Fuentes proposal would solidify D'Arcy's grip on the utility.

"It'll be total control," the person said. "If they thought they were going to lose any control, you think they wouldn't be out there threatening to shut down the utility?"

The council is likely to debate the measure for several months, with the object of putting it on the November ballot. In an email released this week under the California Public Records Act, Fuentes told an aide he hoped he could "cram it for June" — meaning the June primary ballot. But Wesson has slowed the process down.

A key question, as the debate continues, will be the role of Mayor Garcetti. Garcetti took up the DWP issue after D'Arcy spent $4 million trying to defeat him in the election. In the first months of his administration, Garcetti made much of his plan to "Fix DWP" by holding the line on salaries and doing away with cumbersome IBEW work rules.

But so far, Garcetti has seemed receptive to many of Fuentes' ideas. In a statement laying out his own priorities, Garcetti affirmed many of Fuentes' points, offering vague pledges to "overhaul" hiring and "reform" the transfer of the DWP surplus to the city's general accounts. He did draw one sharp distinction, saying the mayor should continue to hire and fire the general manager. But he also echoed Fuentes' language about keeping "politics" away from the utility.

Garcetti may have moved on from the DWP to other issues that he cares more about, such as attracting the Olympics and expanding the city's transit system. For now, the initiative on DWP issues has shifted to Fuentes and Wesson, and it remains to be seen whether Garcetti wishes to expend political capital taking it back.

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