Beyond his calls for water rationing and expressions of concern over expensive junkets, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's new-found interest in the city's Department of Water and Power encompasses a more expansive agenda: He wants to rein in the sprawling agency and fundamentally alter its course.
For decades, the huge DWP has gone about its business of procuring water and creating power like a private company, and by that measure it has done quite well. A sort of sleek IBM among city bureaucracies, it has been virtually free of pressure from the mayor's office and meddling by the City Council.
Now, through public scoldings, private maneuvering and, most importantly, his authority to appoint the five-member DWP commission, Bradley is engaged in an effort to force DWP management to begin balancing its attention to the bottom line with a heightened concern for the environment.
"They're a public utility," deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani said of the DWP and its managers, "and they have a far greater responsibility to the environment than a private company. . . . The mayor is willing to do whatever it takes to make it the most environmentally sensitive department that it possibly can be."
To underscore this intent, sources said, Bradley has plans to remove Commissioner Carol Wheeler and appoint an environmentalist to take her place. The new appointment, who has not yet been named, would be the third environmentalist installed on the board this year, a milestone that will shift the panel's balance of power to activists with little business experience. Wheeler could not be reached for comment.
According to Bradley associates, DWP officials and others familiar with city politics, the shake-up is part of a broader attempt by Bradley to embrace "quality of life" issues--traffic, pollution, homelessness and joblessness. One year into his fifth term, Bradley is trying to downplay the pro-development image that has characterized his Administration.
The DWP is an inviting target for anyone with a political agenda: It is the nation's largest city-owned utility, with a $3-billion annual budget that equals that of the rest of city government combined.
DWP officials bristle at the changes, even as they acknowledge that they are coming. The officials were upset when Bradley--against their advice--proposed mandatory citywide water rationing. They also have been piqued by Bradley's readiness to publicly criticize a DWP practice of ferrying customers and politicians on expensive trips.
"We are not an environmental agency and we should not be," said Rick Caruso, a corporate attorney and real estate developer who is the current board president. "To say our purpose is the environment is malarkey. Our purpose is to provide water and power.
"Our electric rates are 30% below (other regional companies) and we are in pretty good shape in the fourth year of a drought. So what needs to be changed?"
Actually, sources said, one change that the Bradley Administration actively seeks is to replace Caruso as board president. In his place, they said, Bradley wants to install Michael Gage, his combative former chief of staff.
Gage and Dorothy Green, both with strong environmentalist credentials, were appointed to the board six months ago, when Bradley is said to have first decided to make changes within the DWP.
Board sources said the changes could lead to resignations among the veteran bureaucrats who manage DWP. These officials already are leery of Bradley's somewhat vague environmentalist agenda and concerned about the daily orders that began emanating from City Hall earlier this year.
While the mayor has always had the power to direct the giant agency, it was a right rarely exercised, and DWP executives have grown accustomed to running things their way. For instance, they are convinced voluntary conservation would see the city through the fourth summer of drought.
Deputy Mayor Fabiani would not confirm that the commission's changes were in the works, but he said the mayor is serious about refocusing the DWP agenda and "if that involves additional changes on the commission, then so be it."
Environmentalists have been concerned about the DWP principally for two reasons: the depletion of Mono Lake to send water to DWP's Southern California customers and air pollution at the Grand Canyon believed to be caused by coal-burning facility partly owned by DWP. The Arizona plant supplies 13% of the city's electricity.
Attempts to fully address these concerns could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and certainly would impact the supply and price of water and power that the DWP delivers to 3 million Angelenos.
Much of the friction between the mayor and the DWP has taken place outside the public view.
"There's lots of yelling behind the scenes," said one source who has attended high-level management meetings. After years of hands-off management, the mayor's office has begun peppering the department with almost daily directives and questions.