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A Power Maven Answers the Call

April 22, 2001

S. David Freeman came to town with a white Stetson and a big silver belt buckle and in less than four years turned a troubled and bloated Los Angeles Department of Water and Power into the envy of California. At a time when the state is in the midst of an energy crisis, the DWP has more than enough electricity. Some of it was luck, but Freeman deserves a lot of the credit.

He wrestled down the municipal utility's debt, cut costs aggressively, reduced the work force, staved off bankruptcy, increased capacity, pushed conservation and raised profits. The payoff: surplus electricity and low bills for DWP customers while other consumers statewide endure rolling blackouts and rate hikes.

Freeman departed as general manager of the DWP last week--not, at 75, to retire, but to take on the even more daunting job of state energy advisor. He leaves the DWP in much better shape than he found it when Mayor Richard Riordan picked him for the job in July 1997. Plain-spoken and pragmatic, he has taken on the unions, his bosses on the Los Angeles City Council and anyone else who interfered with his plan to make the DWP economically competitive and more environmentally positive.

As California grapples with its statewide crisis, Gov. Gray Davis, who needs all the help he can get on this issue, tapped Freeman and is expected to name him to head the state's new power authority as soon as the Legislature creates it. Davis is betting--hoping--that Freeman can do for the state what he has done for Los Angeles.

Freeman has spent more than half a century in the electricity business. He has run four public power authorities--the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New York Power Authority, the Lower Colorado River Authority in Texas and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District--in addition to the DWP. He has worked for the U.S. Senate and advised Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

In a seminal 1974 study for the Ford Foundation after an Arab oil embargo resulted in gasoline shortages and long lines around service stations, Freeman proposed boosting efficiency, cutting waste and developing alternative sources of energy. That message, then controversial, was opposed by those who viewed Freeman as anti-growth. History has proven him right.

Freeman expects to start his new job in Sacramento May 1, just as temperatures start rising and Californians begin cranking up the air conditioning at work and at home. A spike in demand will exacerbate the energy crisis from San Diego to San Francisco. Not in Los Angeles, where, thanks in part to David Freeman, the lights will stay on.

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