A major question at the Department of Water and Power that continually goes unanswered is: what is General Manager Ron Deaton doing to regain control of the department after former general manager S. David Freeman ceded much of the governing power to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18?
Freeman, a friend of Mayor Villaraigosa and president of the Board of Harbor Commissioners, and his former right-hand man Raman Raj, a Villaraigosa fundraiser, signed off on a number of joint labor management agreements with the IBEW in the late 1990s that afforded Business Manager Brian D’Arcy a ruling hand at the nation’s largest utility. The IBEW spent more than $300,000 on Villaraigosa’s election and promptly cashed in last year with lucrative raises that further expanded the city’s pay disparity among workers with similar job descriptions.
Villaraigosa told radio broadcaster Jack Popejoy in an interview last year that he did not intervene in the labor talks because he did not want “spend my political capital.”
Sources at the DWP say Deaton has opted to not directly engage D’Arcy in an attempt to loosen the union boss’s hold over hiring, public works projects and issues related to employee relations, some of which have sparked an internal investigation of manipulation of job classes and workplace retaliation. Rather, he has delegated that task to Assistant General Manager Hal Lindsey.
The L.A. Weekly visited Lindsey, a former electrical worker, former Southern California Edison executive and a lawyer, in his office last Wednesday. Lindsey’s handshake, ordinarily offered with a lineman’s grip and a smile, was not as firm as usual. Sources say he recently suffered a mini-stroke. He did not seem as upbeat as usual. “I get along great with the union,” he said, in response to questions about how the DWP is faring in what many at City Hall say is a politically dangerous, if not impossible task.
Tensions between DWP and its union have landed in court. A petition to compel arbitration filed by the IBEW in L.A. Superior Court on March 29 charges that the DWP is violating contracting provisions of its memorandum of understanding related to operation and maintenance of steam plants and water supply. And, that the DWP has further violated the labor contract by refusing to process union grievances.
The IBEW also charges that the DWP violated the contract when it refused to consult with the union over decisions to break the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project into five separate contracts and put them all back out to bid, in the wake of employee allegations of waste and mismanagement. A third claim charges that Deaton has refused to hold monthly meetings with D’Arcy, as required by the contract. Since the Freeman-era joint labor management agreements of the late 1990s, and after the DWP significantly downsized its workforce during that same time frame, D’Arcy and his union have filled what observers, including Freeman, have characterized as a “vaccuum of power.”
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Lindsey, who sources say is now overseeing an internal investigative unit led by former law enforcers Bill Jones and Bill Garcia, said there is nothing to the petition, pointing out that it has not been served on DWP management — yet. “Everything’s fine,” he said.
However, interviews with Villaraigosa’s Board of Commissioners over the last several months raise questions about the DWP’s labor policy. In 2004, former assistant general manager Mahmud Chaudhry wrote to then-mayor Jim Hahn and warned him that the IBEW, through a form of political extortion, was leading the DWP toward “moral and fiscal ruin.” Since then, Chaudhry was ostracized and forced to retire after suffering health problems associated with his job. The DWP has proposed raising water rates by more than 7 percent over the next two years. One commissioner told the Weekly, “We’re going to break the union.” Another expressed interest in working with D’Arcy to bolster hiring and training protocols as the DWP eyes a sharp rise in attrition due to age and early retirement. A third says, “I don’t think ignoring Brian is such a good idea.”
Robert Dohrmann, attorney for IBEW, did not return calls. Deaton has stridently refused to comment on labor issues. Commissioner David Nahai has spearheaded a grievance committee and a series of public meetings in which more than 60 employees came forward under promise of protection from retaliation to voice their concerns about workplace issues. An investigation by labor law firm Curiale, Dellaverson, Hirschfeld and Kraemer is under way. Results are expected by June, said Nahai, who has targeted fleet services, information technologies, custodial, landscaping and security for audits.
“We are looking at a crisis in succession over the next five years,” Nahai told the Weekly. We will be losing between 30 and 40 percent of our workforce. There’s a realignment [of power] taking place. A team of managers is trying to reclaim the jurisdiction of management. The union represents its members well. We have to come to a place where all of the functions are in balance.”