Power On High

City Commissioners who last month balked at rubber-stamping a hefty and somewhat mysterious salary boost for 8,000 Department of Water and Power workers decided on Tuesday to rubber-stamp it after all — after a city lawyer and the general manager of the DWP told them that rubber-stamping was just about the extent of their authority on the matter. On a 3-1 vote, the lame-duck DWP board approved a controversial five-year contract for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, sending the matter to the City Council for final approval sometime after Labor Day.But the council may wind up arguing that it lacks discretion to alter or reject the contract, leaving the city’s governing body as yet one more rubber stamp in a labor process over which no one appears ready to take responsibility.The four DWP commissioners (a fifth resigned earlier this year and has not been replaced) were appointed by Mayor James Hahn, who lost his bid for re-election on May 17. When the panel last met, the members surprised the union and other observers by refusing to sign off on the labor agreement, leaving the matter in the hands of new Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s appointees — who at the time had not yet been named.But on Tuesday three outgoing board members said they were stunned to learn that their power extends only to those portions of the contract that have nothing to do with pay, under a City Charter provision that mandates that only the City Council may deal with salaries. All the Water and Power board could do, Assistant City Attorney Susan Lopez-Giss told the commissioners, was to send DWP managers to the bargaining table with instructions to act in good faith.That led Commissioner Annie Cho to complain she was being asked to sign off on something “over which we have no authority to do anything about, but to approve it.”When she raised the question to staff over the last two weeks, she said, she was asked why she was worrying about it. “Well, you’re just a volunteer,” Cho said she was told. “Just approve the damn thing.” The board finally approved the pact in full, noting that, in Cho’s words, “we are very, very uncomfortable.” Cho and commissioners Sid Stolper and Silvia Saucedo voted to approve the contract; Commissioner Gerard McCallum voted no.The attempt to dismiss the board members who oversee the DWP as “volunteers” underscores one of the central problems with Los Angeles’ 40 or so commissions, including the three “proprietaries” that set policy for the DWP, the airport and the harbor. Members all are appointed by the mayor, may be removed at his sole discretion and are responsible only to him. Yet they often are labeled “independent” and as such shield the mayor and the City Council from responsibility for tough decisions. At other times they are instructed that they are essentially powerless — especially when they try to take actions that could put the mayor or the council on the spot.The DWP, while owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, is an ostensibly independent utility with its own labor structure and pay grades. DWP workers have long been paid more than other city employees who do similar work, and the most recent pay increase has outraged non-DWP workers who recently agreed to give up raises while the city was in the midst of a budget crisis.The proposed IBEW Local 18 contract is especially galling to other city unions given the size of the increases. The contract would raise pay an average of 16.25 percent over five years, but raises could go even higher under a clause tying salaries to jumps in the consumer-price index. Other city employees are getting 6.25 percent over three years, with no additional inflation-pegged increases.At the same time, the DWP has asked for permission to raise water rates for Los Angeles residents to cover rising costs — costs that now may include this new labor agreement.It is, ironically, that pay disparity that years ago disempowered the commission. The charter formerly gave the board power to approve DWP workers’ pay, but other city unions pushed for a charter change that transferred that authority to the City Council — so the council would have all salaries in front of it and would work to make sure that they evened out across departments.The council arguably had that power in June, when it instructed its negotiators. It remains an open question whether it will have that power when the contract comes before it in September, or if it instead is stuck with what its negotiators came back with.Antonio Villaraigosa, who won the mayor’s race on May 17 with the help of thousands of dollars of Local 18 contributions and independent expenditures, told reporters recently that he would not have agreed to such a huge pay increase but is powerless to stop it. He said the matter rests with the City Council — but went on to argue that the council may already have acted on June 28 when it gave directions to the city’s negotiating team in closed session.Villaraigosa did not attend the meeting.Did the council on that day paint itself into a corner? Under one interpretation of the law and the charter, the council can now do nothing other than approve the contract that was hammered out between city staff and the union.That was the stance Villaraigosa took on Monday after saying he had been advised by his counsel, attorney Thomas Saenz.But Robert Hunt, attorney for Service Employees International Union Local 347 (the city’s largest blue-collar union) said state Government Code prevents the Council from becoming a rubber stamp by specifying that a city’s governing body — the City Council — has the final say on labor accords.In a further twist that promises to make lawyers happy, some City Charter reformers who wanted to empower the mayor worked hard in 1999 to eliminate the City Council’s role as the governing body. In a compromise, the words “governing body” were deleted from the charter. But they remain in state law, and a court likely would deem them to mean only the City Council.And one more turn of the screw — which lawyer’s advice applies? Saenz advises Villaraigosa, but City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s decision is the one that would be binding on the City Council — and he has not yet issued an opinion.The council likely won’t act until September, after its annual end-of-summer recess, which traditionally concludes with elected officials joining city workers at Labor Day rallies. This year is expected to be no different — except that City Council members preparing to vote on the Local 18 contract will be joined by hundreds of DWP workers wearing T-shirts warning, “No Contract, No Work.”IBEW Local 18 last went on strike in 1993.


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