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Choking on Food Bill : Council Members Seek Audit of $281,000 Catering Charge Run Up by Managers During DWP Strike

September 29, 1993|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Council members on Tuesday called for an audit of $281,000 in catering bills run up during the recent Department of Water and Power strike by supervisors whose daily meal tabs average out to more than $120 apiece.

And that doesn't include baked goods. A separate food contract was awarded for $125,000--which included danishes, muffins, cookies and pies served during the strike.

DWP officials defended the expenditures, explaining that costly stoves and refrigerators had to be set up at many work sites and that catering employees had to put it extra long shifts and endure harassment to provide around-the-clock meal service to the 260 managers filling in for striking workers.

"These were the ones keeping the lights on in the city," DWP spokeswoman Sandra Tanaka said. "This bill is for more than food."

The food bill submitted by Beck and Call Catering, approved by the council last week, is one of numerous charges the DWP incurred during the recent nine-day strike, which drastically reduced the utility's work force but did not result in major breakdowns in service.

The city has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency contracts for extra security (about $115,000 to Pedus Security), mobile homes for supervisors ($130,000 to El Monte RV Center) and baked goods ($125,000 to Lizzie's Confections and Catering). In addition, about $135,000 was paid to a company called ONYX to videotape the picket line in an attempt to cut down on vandalism.

But it is the catering bill to Beck and Call that has drawn the most criticism--particularly from union leaders who said it was shameful to spend so much money on food. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter pushed the bill through the council on Friday, seeking swift payment for the company owner, who had complained that she would go out of business unless the city paid soon. Only this week did officials start scrutinizing the figures.

"While there may be adequate justification for this expense, the public perception is that it is just another example of government waste," Councilman Hal Bernson said in a motion calling for an audit by the city controller's office.

Rumors swirled among DWP workers Tuesday that their bosses dined on steak and lobster while strikers were on the picket line. But DWP officials insisted the meals primarily consisted of chicken, turkey, hot dogs and hamburgers.

"I know no lobster was served," said Mike Moore, DWP's director of governmental relations. "There was one occasion in which steak was served. When we found out, the contractor was told to stop."

The union that represented the bulk of the striking workers expressed outrage at the food bill, calling it an example of waste among the DWP brass.

"It's an obscenity," said Brian D'Arcy, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18. "It's absurd. . . . I assume they were eating gourmet food. How do you spend that much? They certainly weren't eating McDonald's."

D'Arcy said the union served 4,000 striking workers at a Labor Day picnic and only spent $2,000. He estimates the strike will cost the DWP in excess of $20 million when overtime payments are factored in, money he says could have been saved if the city actively negotiated with the union.

The longest strike in DWP history ended Sept. 9 with a tentative accord that called for a 9% pay increase over four years, less than the union was seeking but more than the city's initial offer. Union members are currently voting on the offer by mail.

In anticipation of any future labor unrest, Councilwoman Laura Chick has called for City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie and Controller Rick Tuttle to come up with cost guidelines for city departments that are experiencing strikes.

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