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Low-Quality Promise

L.A. Department of Water and Power Commissioner Nick Patsaouras has a nickname for Ch2M Hill, the internationally known megacontractor that has designed and managed a $415 million dust-reduction project at Owens Lake. He calls the firm, which also has contracts at the airport, the port and the Board of Public Works, “The Snake.”Why, then, did Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sources say relies on the counsel of Patsaouras as much as any of his confidants, recently reappoint Ch2M Hill vice president Jack Baylis to the city’s Quality and Productivity Commission? According to DWP workers, independent subcontractors and even local air-quality regulators in the Owens Valley, the words “quality” and “productivity” contrast sharply with a project they say is plagued by careless design, shoddy workmanship and runaway costs — and which has both the DWP board and City Council calling for an audit.“The issue is with the company, not the individual,” Villaraigosa said recently when asked by a reporter about his decision to reappoint Baylis. Villaraigosa submitted Baylis’ reappointment in a letter to the City Council on October 21, “solely in the interest of the city.” Baylis was first appointed in April 2002 by then-mayor Jim Hahn.The Audits and Governmental Efficiency Committee, led by Wendy Greuel and Tom LaBonge, approved Baylis 2-0 on November 7. The next day, the council voted unanimously to approve Baylis 13-0. Which might not be so startling, given Baylis’ reputation as an expert on strategic planning, the environment and municipal affairs. But a closer look at both Baylis and Ch2M Hill shows why the mayor and the council have grown comfortable with both the company and the man, and why the mayor seems comfortable leaving the impression he doesn’t always mean what he says.For starters, Baylis has been registered as a lobbyist at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority since at least November 2000, according to MTA officials. Villaraigosa’s first pronouncement on his first day in office was that he would remove lobbyists from city commissions. Although it is not the same as lobbying City Hall, lobbying the MTA hits almost as close to home with Villaraigosa, who appointed a majority of its board and basically controls the place. MTA officials have not responded to two written requests for information about projects Baylis has lobbied.Ch2M Hill’s lobbying power and its giving spirit in the campaign-finance arena also send a strong message to would-be government reformers. The firm and its lobbyists have contributed more than $70,000 to local officials in the last five years, according to Ethics Commission records. Baylis and his wife have contributed $9,500 to various city officials since 2000, including Villaraigosa. On inauguration day, L.A.’s Best, an after-school program with its corporate office in the mayor’s office, held a charity fund-raiser. Ch2M Hill was among 40 “benefactors,” donating $25,000 to the cause, according to Sharon Yarbrough, the program’s deputy administrator.In Sacramento, Ch2M Hill has spent more than $745,000 lobbying since 2001, according to Secretary of State records. The firm has given more than $531,000 to state campaigns since 2001. Baylis was traveling in China last week, reportedly with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Baylis referred calls to the firm’s corporate office in Denver.On Monday, Ch2M Hill spokesman John Corsi said Baylis is honored to serve as a quality and productivity commissioner in Los Angeles. Corsi said Baylis feels qualified to serve and that his work on the commission has nothing to do with Ch2M Hill’s work as a contracting firm. “I can’t speak to why the mayor reappointed him.” Patsaouras joined the DWP Board recently, promoting the notion that Ch2M Hill was a “big boy” in town. With 30 years’ experience at the MTA both as a contractor and a board member, he says he knows every trick in the book. He says he has his eye on Ch2M Hill.Before taking his seat on the DWP board, Patsaouras sought the advice of outgoing board members. He says he went to lunch with former DWP commissioner Silvia Saucedo. According to Patsaouras, Saucedo told him the biggest mistake she made was to trust what DWP management told her. “I come in with mistrust,” Patsaouras told the Weekly. “They have to earn my trust.” Saucedo disputes Patsaouras’ characterization of the conversation. She says commissioners always have an obligation to verify what is put in front of them.Patsaouras’ presence on the DWP board, along with attorney David Nahai and board president Mary Nichols, has given hope to DWP veterans longing for reform of the nation’s largest public utility. In response to Patsaouras’ stated concerns about perceptions that Ch2M Hill “is running the DWP,” general manager Ron Deaton and Richard Harisick, the man responsible for overseeing Ch2M Hill’s work, have defended the firm and said the DWP didn’t know what it was getting into up at Owens Lake, where project estimates of $120 million have more than tripled, and the firm’s contract extends to 2008.Not satisfied with bland assurances, Patsaouras has called for an audit and for Ch2M Hill to be replaced as construction manager on the bloated dust-removal project, which just expanded by 9 miles. “So the fox is watching the chickens?” he said of the unusual arrangement that allowed Ch2M Hill to design the project and oversee construction. As negative reports flowed out of the Owens Valley, DWP managers responded by sending out directives to employees instructing them to clam up if called for comment.Corsi says the project is complicated, and the firm will cooperate fully with an audit.Under these circumstances, why should the mayor reward a vice president of Ch2M Hill with a commission post — albeit on a rinky-dink commission that exists mostly to throw an annual awards luncheon — when DWP managers are telling Villaraigosa’s pit bull things about Ch2M Hill that he finds hard to believe, and the DWP is trying to silence its workers? “I don’t want to second-guess the mayor’s appointments,” Patsaouras said, though he agreed that “quality” and “productivity” are not words he would use to describe Baylis’ company’s performance at Owens Lake. “I can promise you the audit will be fair and thorough.” Villaraigosa spokesman Joe Ramallo did not return calls for comment.Julie Butcher, head of SEIU Local 347, serves with Baylis on the commission. She says Baylis is a “mensch.” His company should be open to scrutiny, she says, but points out that he resigned from his commission post after the election, only to be reappointed by Villaraigosa. “It’s a feeble commission,” she says. “Nobody wants it to exist.”On its best day, the commission encourages excellence and innovation, Butcher says. “Nobody looks at this on a citywide basis. For years we’ve said get rid of consultants. That would cut the budget by half.” Owens Lake is a prime example of how the city gets involved with consultants that cannot be made accountable, she says. “There aren’t any good reasons to have long-term contracts. The city is inept at monitoring them. To try to do it long-distance is even more impossible. I’m not defending anyone. I don’t think the city wants to get better. We are left to assume that the reasons are money and influence.”

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