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DWP executive weighing options

Ron Deaton has been on medical leave since suffering a heart ailment last summer. He could make a decision about his future this week.

October 22, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

If anyone has been a symbol of unseen power and influence at Los Angeles City Hall, it's Ron Deaton, a 42-year bespectacled bureaucrat who built a formidable reputation by getting the city's elected leaders to do what he told them.

In the decade that he advised the 15-member City Council, such labels as "the most powerful person in City Hall" and "the 16th council member" attached themselves to the Seal Beach resident. And when he took the top job at the city's Department of Water and Power in 2004, Deaton found another place where he could affect the lives of millions while staying out of the public eye.

But these days, Deaton is participating in a different behind-the-scenes drama, as he, his doctors and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wait to see whether, or when, he will leave the agency that provides electricity and water to 3.8 million residents and businesses.

Deaton, 64, has been on medical leave from the DWP since July, when the vacationing DWP chief was airlifted out of Costa Rica after suffering a severe heart arrhythmia. He spent two days in a coma. And he has been going through a painstaking rehabilitation that tests both his physical strength and his short-term memory.

Sources familiar with the DWP say Deaton could decide his future as soon as this week. Meanwhile, one of Villaraigosa's closest allies, attorney H. David Nahai, has gone so far as to resign from the appointed DWP commission to improve his chances of replacing Deaton.

The man who still holds the post, however, has made no announcement. While he confirmed last week that he has been looking at retirement "very seriously," Deaton also said that he has had a remarkable recovery for someone who was on the brink of death last summer.

"I feel confident that at some point I could come back," Deaton said last week. "I started in 1965, so not going back there has personal consequences."

With an annual salary of nearly $345,000, Deaton is the top wage-earner at City Hall and a force in local government. As the city's chief legislative analyst from 1993 to late 2004, he engineered a number of successful bond measures that paid for new police stations, fire stations, libraries, parks and other facilities.

Deaton played a key role in giving the federal government oversight of reforms at the Los Angeles Police Department and mastered the details of such mega-projects as Staples Center, the sports arena built in 1999 with the city's financial help.

"If there was a deal that had to be done, it was Ron who did it," said former City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who relied on Deaton's advice during much of her 16-year tenure.

Deaton played an especially influential role in the 2002 fight over San Fernando Valley secession, spending countless hours on behalf of the city, which did not want to lose the Valley, negotiating with a county agency over the wording of the breakaway ballot measure.

The ballot language proved unappealing to many voters, sending the measure to its doom. The make-or-break issue was one dear to Deaton's heart: the possibility that neither water nor electricity would be delivered to Valley residents at a reasonable price.

"People in the Valley may not care about [who gets] the Central Library, but they would be concerned about who gets the water and who gets the power," he said.

Deaton's move to the DWP two years later was viewed as a victory lap of sorts. His first government job had been at the utility. Yet some were surprised when he devoted considerable energy to the signing of an agreement that promised that the DWP would warn neighborhood councils in advance about major policy changes at the utility, including customer rate hikes.

DWP Commissioner Nick Patsaouras, a Villaraigosa appointee who has lodged some brutal critiques against the utility, said last week that Deaton had done a good job. And some of the city's crustiest community leaders praised Deaton for collaborating with the neighborhood councils.

"There's no one I respect in government more than Ron Deaton," said downtown activist Brady Westwater, who sat across the table from Deaton during the bargaining sessions.

Westwater, like many others who have known Deaton, has not spoken with him since the DWP executive's disastrous trip to Costa Rica. The attack struck when Deaton was in his hotel room, sending him to a public hospital in San Jose.

Days later, friends transported Deaton and his wife back to Los Angeles in a tiny plane that flew directly from Costa Rica to Burbank. "I was on it. She was on it. There were two or three other people, and there wasn't room for any more," he said.

Deaton is sketchy on other details, in part because he has no memory of the Central America trip, from the moment he packed his luggage to the day he regained consciousness. Since then, he has begun a lengthy recovery, walking on a treadmill and learning to regain his balance, and traveled to other parts of the state with his family.

In his absence, the DWP grappled with its second straight summer of power outages and pushed a series of rate hikes crafted by Deaton. And despite the fact that no retirement announcement has been made, environmentalists have begun lobbying city officials to support Nahai as Deaton's successor.

Neither his wife nor his children want him to return to his job. But Deaton said he does not relish the idea of being on disability for the remainder of his tenure.

Regardless of whether he goes back to the DWP, Deaton said he intends to revisit the hospital in San Jose that saved his life.

"Someday, not tomorrow, I'm going to go back there and thank them for what they've done," he said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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