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Villaraigosa blames bureaucrats for DWP’s resistance to change

April 23, 2010|From a Times staff writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had unusually sharp words Wednesday for unidentified high-level bureaucrats within the city's Department of Water and Power.

At a meeting with Times opinion writers and editors, the mayor said his recent fight with the City Council over boosting electricity rates was made harder by the utility's own resistance to change. Though he nominates the DWP general manager and appoints its board, the real power is held by utility supervisors who "control the bureaucracy."

"For four years, I've battled a bureaucracy that just won't respond to the policy direction" to move away from coal toward renewable fuels like solar and wind energy, Villaraigosa said. "It's been an absolute war."

He said it was extremely difficult to get information out of utility leaders. "Every time that we tried to figure out what the numbers are," the bureaucracy resists. "Getting through that Byzantine bureaucracy is very difficult…. We've got to figure out a way to make that agency more transparent."

Although he stopped short of naming names, the mayor said upper-level managers are particularly unresponsive.

"They undermined [former General Manager Ronald] Deaton, they undermined [former General Manager David] Nahai. Even [outgoing General Manager S. David] Freeman," Villaraigosa said. "…I'm talking about that upper-level management…You can't fire them. They just go back to the Civil Service system" and they lose about $15,000 in salary as well as their city-provided cars, but they stay in the DWP. "They out-wait you. They've out-waited everybody."

In defense of the agency — the nation's largest municipal utility — the mayor noted that customers still pay less for water and electricity than what private utilities charge. But he said its management must change.

When Villaraigosa appointed city jobs czar Austin Beuter on Monday to replace Freeman as interim DWP manager, the mayor said he told him to "deconstruct" the giant utility's operations.

Part of the problem, said the mayor, is that almost everyone working at the DWP — more than 90% — belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18.

The union, he continued, "is both part of the problem and part of the solution." It's not the union itself that is the issue; instead, the problem is that "it's too wall-to-wall…the biggest problem is that you have people at the highest levels who are in the union….They're the biggest defenders of the status quo."

The only way to fix the agency is to bring in someone from outside who can be a "change agent who brings in a cadre" of managers with him, Villaraigosa said. He has asked Beutner to find that executive. He or she would probably come from a private utility because no one from the public sector really has the experience and skills needed, the mayor said.

And right now, he added, no one from a private utility is interested because they know previous DWP leaders have struggled to gain control.

metrodesk@latimes.com

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