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Measure B fight thrusts DWP union chief into spotlight

March 30, 2009|David Zahniser
  • Brian D?Arcy says there?s no chance the DWP will reach the mayor?s 20% renewable power goal by 2010.
Brian D?Arcy says there?s no chance the DWP will reach the mayor?s 20% renewable… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

To hear a bracingly candid assessment of Los Angeles politics, look no further than Brian D'Arcy, the labor leader whose union represents 8,000 employees at the Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest municipal utility.

The man who runs the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 is no fan of the city's neighborhood councils, calling them "dysfunction-palooza." He is critical of certain environmentalists, saying they place the interests of their corporate backers over the welfare of the city.

And even though he devised the solar energy plan known as Measure B, D'Arcy is a withering critic of other DWP environmental initiatives. He is especially vocal about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's drive to ensure that 20% of the utility's power comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2010.

" 'Environmental leadership' isn't meeting some artificial deadline by any means necessary," he said. "Environmental leadership is actually creating economic development while cleaning the air where you live, putting people to work and linking the environment to it. That's not really what's going on, if you ask me."

Measure B , billed heavily as a "green" jobs initiative, went down to defeat at the polls March 3. But it thrust D'Arcy, frequently described as the most powerful man at the DWP, into the spotlight as never before. After years of wielding power behind the scenes, the 58-year-old Silver Lake resident has reluctantly begun attending news conferences, newspaper editorial board interviews and even one heated campaign debate on Measure B in Mar Vista.

Even after the election, D'Arcy continues to speak out, using his dry wit to skewer not only the DWP's general manager, H. David Nahai, but the utility's efforts to secure solar power in the Mojave Desert and geothermal energy in the Salton Sea.

The union leader said there is "not a chance" that the DWP would reach the mayor's 20% goal by the end of 2010. And he has vowed to persuade the DWP's five-member commission to do what voters would not: approve his solar plan, which would use the utility's workforce to add 400 megawatts of solar panels across L.A.

"He does not feel that he lost the election," said S. David Freeman, a harbor commissioner and a Measure B supporter who ran the DWP until 2001. "He put this issue out in the public in a way that it wasn't before, and the impression that I have is that he intends to continue to push for it."

Freeman had a largely amicable relationship with D'Arcy during his time at the DWP, holding regular breakfast meetings with him at Langer's Deli near MacArthur Park. Others have had less-favorable experiences, including Ron Kaye, a Measure B foe who debated D'Arcy in the campaign.

Kaye, a former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, described D'Arcy as a bully who uses labor-strike threats and campaign muscle to intimidate the city's politicians. "Whatever D'Arcy wants, D'Arcy gets, and that's because they're so weak and easily intimidated." he said. "I give him high ratings for doing his job. I'd give them miserable ratings for not doing theirs."

Kaye was one of several activists who argued that Measure B had been developed out of the public eye and with little serious scrutiny of its potential cost. D'Arcy, in turn, said he had spent more than a year selling the idea to selected civic leaders -- and accused Kaye of seeking to privatize the DWP.

D'Arcy said the DWP has shrouded its other renewable energy plans in far more secrecy than his own solar initiative. He predicted that utility officials would strike deals for overpriced renewable power from private companies. And he criticized them for refusing to identify the renewable energy companies with whom they are negotiating.

"They claim it hurts their bargaining position" to reveal the names, D'Arcy said. "But truthfully, when they go in to negotiate anything, they usually come out with their underwear on the outside of their pants."

Nahai said the DWP would fight for the best possible deal when negotiating with renewable energy companies -- and make each proposal public once it is submitted to the DWP commission for a discussion and vote. "We have every confidence that we'll meet the 20% milestone, and we hope to do so with his cooperation and support," he said.

D'Arcy joined the union in 1990 and was named its top official two years later. But he first flexed his muscle in a big way in 1993, leading his union on a nine-day strike that left DWP managers scrambling to provide water and power to the city's residents. By the end of the decade, D'Arcy was a major influence on the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, helping the coalition with such issues as immigrant rights and union outreach to Latino voters. That work was part of a citywide movement and went well beyond the interests of electrical workers, said Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the labor federation.

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