Concerned about criticism from the San Fernando Valley, Mayor Richard Riordan warned a city panel Wednesday that its water rate deliberations must be viewed as fair by the public.
Riordan's warning, however, failed to satisfy Councilman Hal Bernson who earlier had urged Riordan to disband the panel altogether because its members were allegedly biased against Valley residents.
Riordan's statements came in a letter to the chairpersons of the Task Force on Water Rate Restructuring, a group that was reconvened in September by the mayor to review complaints that San Fernando Valley residents are charged too much under a new water rate system. Critics say the rates are unfair because the Valley is hotter and its residents have larger lawns that require more watering.
Bernson, who represents the northwest Valley, last week asked Riordan to dismiss the panel's existing members and appoint new ones because, he contended, several of its members had made prejudicial remarks about protests by Valley residents against the rates.
The members had belittled Valley residents, calling them "crybabies," and had sarcastically dismissed Bernson's request that the panel hold additional hearings in the Valley, the councilman charged. He did not name the panelists he believed responsible for the remarks.
In his letter to chairpersons Sandy Brown, a Westside homeowner activist, and attorney Anthony Willoughby, a former Mayor Tom Bradley appointee to the Water and Power Commission, Riordan wrote:
"I ask that you counsel the members of the Task Force to remember that a very important part of their job is to create public confidence in the process, so that regardless of the outcome the public and the City Council will feel that all points of view were carefully considered . . . "
The letter did not specifically address the alleged remarks mentioned by Bernson.
In his letter, released Wednesday, Riordan also urged the task force's two chairpersons to hold yet a third meeting in the northwest Valley, a hotbed of discontent over the skyrocketing water rates.
But Bernson said Riordan's move amounted only to a weak reprimand that "was not good enough."
"I don't consider it satisfactory," Bernson said. "The fact that the committee is fairly well stacked against the Valley remains unchanged. . . . But I'm in no position to change that. The mayor's going to do what the mayor's going to do."
Still, Bernson said he appreciated that Riordan urged the panel to hold an additional public hearing on the water rate issue in the Valley. The panel earlier this month voted to hold hearings next Monday and Tuesday, in Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks respectively, but rejected a Bernson proposal for a third hearing in the northern part of the Valley.
A top aide to the mayor said the expectation is that a third hearing in the Valley would actually be part of a second round of hearings, held after the panel has prepared any recommendations to change the current controversial water rate system.
By contrast, the two Valley meetings set for next week will be part of a round of seven hearings held to gather information and hear complaints before the formulation of any recommendations for change.
"The mayor needs to show good faith toward the Valley," Bernson added. "After all, he was elected by the Valley and we should be getting a fair shake from him." Riordan scored his biggest victory margins in the four council districts located wholly within the Valley.
Riordan in September asked the task force to hold hearings on the impact of the new water rate system and appointed four Valley residents to the panel, apparently to placate Valley lawmakers Bernson and Councilwoman Laura Chick, whose constituents have complained most about the rates.
The new system, which took effect in February, has two rate tiers. The first and lower tier is for customers who use less water, the higher tier for larger consumers. The second tier rate takes effect when a customer uses twice the amount consumed by the average residential user.
Supporters say the new rate system properly encourages conservation in a desert region that sometimes has uncertain water supplies. Moreover, they contend that the new rate system has meant higher rates for only about one-fourth of DWP's customers while the remainder have enjoyed reductions.
Willoughby, a co-chair of the panel, denied earlier this week that any prejudicial remarks were made against the Valley. "It's definitely erroneous," he said.
He also denied that the original members of the panel--who, with the exception of the four new appointees from the Valley--helped craft the new water rate system, are resentful that they are now being asked to reconsider their work.
"Oh, no, there's no resentment," he said. "I'm only concerned that it's a little premature to be conducting this review."
Willoughby said the review ideally should have been held only after the rates had been in effect for a full year.
Willoughby defended the new rate system, but also contended that the "panel is open-minded" about looking at criticism of the system.