Update: Hands down, these two L.A. DWP reform measures are the huge winners tonight. As of 12:20 a.m. Wed., Measure I had 77.35 percent yes, and Measure J had 81.27 percent.
Early election returns for March 8, 2011 suggest that Los Angeles voters really really want changes in how the unpopular, publicly owned Department of Water and Power is controlled. Charter Amendments I and J are attracting landslide “yes” votes of about 77 and 81 percent with absentee votes largely counted.
Amendment I creates a “ratepayer advocate” and a DWP “Office of Accountability.” Charter Amendment J forces DWP leaders to turn over their preliminary annual budget each year in a timely manner to the City Council.
The modest reforms were placed on the ballot following a fiscal debacle that bordered on hysteria inside City Hall in March and April of 2010. During the dustup, Al Gore weighed in by satellite, City Controller Wendy Greuel warned that L.A. was running out of cash and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared that L.A. could go bankrupt — and called for a partial government shutdown.
The antics in City Hall last year hurt L.A.'s credit rating and reputation nationally.
The drama was set off when Villaraigosa backed the DWP's plan to ask for a surprisingly steep 28 percent rate hike that would have hit homeowners and small businesses hard.
Much of the rate hike was said to be needed to pay for unspecified “renewable energy” projects that were — and in most instances still are — well down the road.
Public outcry grew after Villaraigosa persuaded his appointees on the DWP Board of Commissioners to go along with his rate hike plan. In the face of public anger, Villaraigosa shifted his emphasis from the need for green energy to the shocking claim that L.A. could go bankrupt if the City Council didn't back the DWP rate hikes.
The City Council, angry over being politically whipsawed as to the true reason for the rate hike, ordered the DWP to bring the rate hike plan brought before it for a special hearing and vote.
In what was widely seen as political retaliation, DWP honcho Raman Raj announced that the DWP was in trouble fiscally and would not send a long-promised $73.5 million from its coffers to help out the general city treasury — unless the City Council approved the huge rate hike.
Ultimately, a major rate hike was approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the DWP got most of what it wanted, and City Hall got the utility's $73.5 million in promised help.
But Raj's threat to withhold $73.5 million from the city, and the DWP's widely assumed lie — its claim that the rich utility was in trouble fiscally — led to the current ballot reforms.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry and others began discussing the idea of seeking voters' help at the ballot box to wrest some of the DWP's autonomy away from it.
The idea was to rein in the role increasingly being played by the utility — which, somewhat ironically, is owned by Los Angeles residents and is supposed to be pro-resident — as a political kingmaker and fiscal game-player.
Among other things, the reforms on today's ballot give the City Council a much earlier and detailed look at the DWP's fiscal data each year, so that the 15 council members can no longer be snookered into believing the huge utility is in fiscal trouble.