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Secretive DWP nonprofits should open spending records, mayor says

September 20, 2013|By Michael Finnegan
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti meets Armando Gonzalez, 39, and Leslie Baez, 20, of Soul Skating at his "help desk" temporarily set up on 1842 E. 1st St. in Boyle Heights.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti meets Armando Gonzalez, 39, and Leslie… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called Friday for a public accounting of roughly $40 million in Department of Water and Power ratepayer money that went to two secretive nonprofit groups in charge of improving relations with the utility’s largest employees union.

“I think that ratepayers deserve to have transparency -- to know where ratepayer money is going,” Garcetti told reporters as he prepared to take questions from constituents at a curbside “office hours” event in Boyle Heights.

The Joint Training Institute and the Joint Safety Institute, controlled by union leaders and managers of the DWP, have received up to $4 million a year since their creation more than a decade ago.

Nearly all of the nonprofits' money comes from ratepayers, records show. About $1 million per year has gone to salaries for a handful of administrators and more than $360,000 was spent on travel from 2009 to 2011, The Times reported Thursday.

Officials at the nonprofits, the DWP and the employees union, Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, declined to be interviewed about the institutes' activities and spending.

The broad purpose of the organizations, city records show, has been to "identify" safety and training as core values at the department, and to promote "communication, mutual trust and respect" between DWP managers and the union. But ordinances establishing the nonprofits in 2000 and 2002 don't specify how the ratepayer money should be spent.

“Everybody wants workplace safety,” Garcetti said Friday. “That’s a great goal. So I think that the reason why something like this would be set up in itself isn’t bad. But if it’s being spent well, let’s see where it is.”

For years, DWP managers and the city attorney’s office have quietly debated whether to make the institutes' meetings and records public. The DWP has invoked attorney-client privilege to block disclosure of memos written by city lawyers arguing the nonprofits should be bound by open government rules that apply to city agencies.

On Friday, Garcetti, who has promised greater transparency at City Hall, sidestepped the question of whether he approved of an agency that he now oversees invoking attorney-client privilege to keep the memos secret.

“I’ll be talking to the department,” Garcetti said. “I’d like us to be able to show that. Obviously there’s some legal rights that the other side of this agreement has. But moving forward, if we’re putting money in, we should design this in a way where people know -- if there’s nothing to hide, let’s see it.”

The DWP union ran a brutal and high-profile campaign against Garcetti’s election. The city recently reached a tentative four-year pact with Local 18, but the union has not yet ratified it.

Garcetti described his call for public disclosure of the nonprofits’ spending as “part of reforming DWP from a place where we did too many things behind closed doors and out of the spotlight to a place where we shine sunlight.”

“We’re spending the money on our bills,” he said. “We deserve to know where that money goes -- how it’s spent, how it’s paid. And I welcome all people to be a part of that. This isn’t an us-versus-them. Whether it’s the union, whether it’s the bureaucrats at DWP, we should have them be a part of this mission to reform DWP.”


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