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L.A.'s Latest Luminary

Energy: DWP's David Freeman gets credit for insulating city from electricity crunch.

December 23, 2000|TERENCE MONMANEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once again, glory goes to S. David Freeman, the cunningly eccentric 74-year-old general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

As the California energy crisis deepens ominously, much of the state is bracing for a rate hike next month. But the city-owned utility enjoys a lucrative energy surplus while the 3.8 million residents it serves benefit from some of the steadiest and lowest electricity bills in the state, thanks in good measure to Freeman.

A native Tennessean who sports an ivory-colored cowboy hat night and day, indoors and out, he was already a legendary utility chief and energy expert in 1997 when he took the job at the DWP, then an overstaffed, debt-burdened agency approaching bankruptcy.

Not only did he reduce the payroll by 1,500 employees and halve the $7.9-billion debt without raising prices to residential consumers, he also helped the nation's largest municipal utility avoid deregulation, the 1996 state plan that lifted restrictions on electricity trading to spur competition.

So now that some critics blame deregulation for today's electricity chaos--prices skyrocketing, private utilities saying they may go broke, threats of rationing, Gov. Gray Davis snuffing out the Capitol's Christmas lights--Freeman looks visionary. Or lucky. Again.

There he stands in Griffith Park by the DWP's lavish display of holiday lights, which serves as a glowing monument to the city's electricity surplus and an unintended tweak of the governor's nose.

"If you want to have a very merry Christmas, celebrate it in L.A.," he has been saying for a month.

On Friday afternoon, the utility was pouring 3,371.8 megawatts of electricity into the city, according to a digital meter behind his desk in his capacious 15th floor downtown office. The walls are adorned with photos of him with Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev and other luminaries. "I haven't put him in the closet yet," Freeman, a Democrat, said of the Gore picture.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he had an unremarkable childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., he said. His father was an umbrella repairman and haberdasher who taught him two things: Enjoy life and stand for something. "If you don't fight for your beliefs, you're not livin'," Freeman said in a rough voice with an accent as thick as a Great Smoky Mountains mist.

He is single, a veteran of three marriages with three grown children and nine grandchildren. He spends his scant free time, he said, reading, dining with friends and walking around Santa Monica, where he lives in a rented condominium--and pays Southern California Edison bills.

He describes himself as a restless boss and thinker.

"I have a theory," he said one

afternoon while being chauffeured in a city car to Los Angeles International Airport, another stop on a packed schedule that would wear out a man half his age.

"If you have any initiative and any contributions to make, they are pretty much exhausted in four or five years. And then you just start defending your mistakes."

Before coming to the DWP, he ran four public utilities, including the nation's largest, the Tennessee Valley Authority, where he halted construction on eight power plants, earning the once-denigrated utility awards from environmentalists.

His reputation as a visionary can be traced to the start of his time as an analyst on President Lyndon B. Johnson's science and technology staff in the mid-1960s, when he arranged for the first federal grants to study solar power. He stayed on to advise President Richard Nixon's staff, helping coordinate environmental policy.

The first laws requiring car makers to build vehicles with better gas mileage? Those labels on new refrigerators and other appliances that tell you how much energy they use? Home insulation standards? He had a hand in them, too, as a Senate staffer in the mid-1970s.

A seminal 1974 study that he directed for the Ford Foundation, "A Time to Choose," set the tone for America's energy policies for years to come--after much controversy. Published a year after the oil embargo, it showed for the first time that the nation could find all the energy it needed if it boosted efficiency, cut waste and developed alternative sources such as solar power.

Sounds like common sense, but conservatives hammered him for what they interpreted as an anti-growth philosophy. Even liberals attacked him for being an ideologue.

"But he was right," said Mason Willrich, an energy scholar and former chief executive of Pacific Gas & Electric Enterprises, a subsidiary of the private utility. Willrich, who has known Freeman for decades, said he's "one of the major figures in the energy business since the Arab oil embargo."

"Every place Dave has gone, he's certainly not been shy," said Willrich, now a partner at Nth Power, a Bay Area venture capital firm specializing in energy projects. "He wades right into the major problems and leaves each place a lot better than he found it."

Once a Worker for Deregulation

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