It's not often you see elected officials trying to pass a law giving themselves less power.
But that's exactly what is going on with Measure RRR, otherwise known as Measure Arrrrrrrrr! the pirate measure. Its purpose? To “reform” the much-maligned Department of Water and Power, often seen as an unwieldy, opaque public utility.
Most reform ideas come from the outside. This one, oddly enough, is being driven by insiders — DWP officials and city councilmembers.
“It’s like the City Council and the mayor want to dump this thing, so they don’t have the stink of the DWP sticking to them,” says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “I've heard it called a power grab. But it’s a lot worse than that. This is taking an unbelievably dysfunctional and unaccountable agency and making it even less accountable.”
Its backers, of course, see things differently.
“We’re hoping it will create a more efficient and nimble department, something that is much more customer-focused than it is now,” says Vanessa Rodriguez, spokeswoman for City Council president Herb Wesson. “It’s about centralizing the decisionmaking process and empowering our board members, making it more of a professional board with expertise.”
Measure RRR (all the local ballot measures are thrice named now) would make a number of changes to the City Charter, altering how the DWP is managed:
• Its Board of Commissioners, which oversees the department and hires the general manager, would grow from five to seven members, and would be professionalized to a certain extent. Members would be paid (amount TBD), serve staggered four-year terms (instead of five), and be required to have expertise in certain areas, such as utility management, environmental policy or labor relations.
• Most contracts that the DWP signs would no longer need City Council approval. All power contracts (the DWP buys electricity from other utilities, such as Southern California Edison) would no longer need approval. And all franchises, licenses and leases lasting less than 30 years would no longer need approval. Most importantly, union contracts and even the amount of money ratepayers pay could be approved by the board without mayor or City Council approval — though the council could choose to step in and veto any union contracts or rate hikes.
• Right now, all prospective government employees have to take a civil service exam. Their scores are used to determine who gets any government job, including in the DWP. Measure RRR would allow the DWP to remove itself from that system, further separating DWP employees from city employees as a class.
This has other city unions in something of a tizzy. They're already pissed that DWP employees make, on average, more than 50 percent of what they make. Taking DWP employees out of the civil service system would make it much harder for city employees to transfer into the far more lucrative Department of Water and Power. It also would make it easier for the DWP to promote from within.
That's why a number of public employee unions are lining up to oppose Measure RRR, and to pay for a campaign against it.
“If Water and Power gets to hire whoever they want secretly, there’s no ability for folks to guarantee there’s local hiring and fair hiring,” says Julie Butcher, the former head of SEIU Local 721.
Measure RRR's backers are a motley crew, not often seen on the same side of issues. One backer is the DWP's union, the powerful IBEW Local 18, whose members account for nearly every single DWP employee (without them, our lights go off). In 2013, IBEW Local 18 and its controversial leader, Brian D'Arcy, threw their political weight (i.e., cash) behind Wendy Greuel. It was a bad bet. Her opponent, Eric Garcetti, used the IBEW's $4 million in cash as an issue against Greuel. When he was elected, he promised to rein in D'Arcy and the IBEW.
And that's exactly what he did, at least at first. Garcetti bargained a tough new contract with IBEW Local 18, freezing salaries for three years and putting off a 2 percent pay raise that the previous contract had guaranteed.
But relations between D'Arcy and the mayor have apparently warmed. They're both in favor of Measure RRR.
“DWP needs the tools to be more flexible and innovative, so it can meet critical challenges of the day like climate change, the drought and providing better customer service for all ratepayers,” the mayor said in a written statement. “I support Measure RRR because it's a sensible reform package that will help bring DWP into the 21st century by providing the G.M. with day-to-day operational flexibility.”
That's the argument in favor of RRR – it would make the utility more flexible, allowing it greater control over who it fires. It would give it more autonomy, allowing it to make decisions without the approval of meddling politicians. As DWP general manager Marcie Edwards said at a public forum in March, “I need permission from 100 people to buy a box of pencils.”
“All the people that made this happen suddenly have other things to do,” quips Mac Zilber, a campaign consultant working on the No on RRR campaign.
Indeed, there is a whole host of theories about why Fuentes decided to retire early, including one that has him going to work for the IBEW after a yearlong cool-off period as a lobbyist (there's no evidence of that, just speculation).
Critics of RRR fear that it will lead to more and more of DWP's operations being privatized. Right now, if the DWP wants to hire a private firm to manage a water recycling plant, it needs City Council approval. That means a vetting period, public hearings, public comment and, ultimately, elected officials who are held responsible for their decisions by voters.
Brenna Norton, an organizer for Food and Water Watch, worries that if RRR passes, an unelected board will make these decisions unnoticed by the public. “Voters are being asked to transfer a lot of oversight that currently exists with City Council to an unelected DWP board,” Norton says.
Measure RRR's backers say it will free the DWP from politicians' meddling.
“When you’ve got the elected officials who are making decisions, you end up politicizing decisions,” says Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. “By taking it out of the hands of officials, you’re able to get more things done.”
But consider what the City Council has done to the DWP in the past: It has vetoed a number of rate hikes, and it has ordered the utility to come up with a plan to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable resources, having already promised to wean itself off of coal by 2025.
“If we’ve learned one thing about the DWP,” Norton says, “it's that decisionmaking without oversight often results in unaccounted for and wasted resources.”
Even Herb Wesson's spokeswoman, Vanessa Rodriguez, concedes that RRR could lead to less oversight.
“Part of that is accurate,” she says. “Certainly, theoretically, more eyes on the cookie jar assures the cookies stay in the jar. But the mayor and the City Council would certainly stay involved, as far as bigger issues, like rate setting. That control will always exist.”