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Push for in-house DWP watchdog gains momentum

October 16, 2009 |  3:25 pm

The push to create an in-house ratepayer advocate at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gained new momentum today, with a majority of the Los Angeles City Council saying that the proposal’s time has come.

Although the DWP and representatives of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have resisted the idea for months, a succession of rate hikes and an $82,000 consulting contract with departing DWP General Manager H. David Nahai may have turned the tide, council members said.

Council President Eric Garcetti, known for smoothing over disputes between council members and the mayor, submitted a proposal today calling for a ratepayer advocate. His request comes two days after Councilman Greig Smith called for an inspector general — someone with “unfettered access to all records, personnel meetings, key documents and contracts” — to probe the utility’s financial doings.

“The ratepayers don’t trust the DWP,” said Councilman Richard Alarcon. “I believe a ratepayer advocate or inspector general could help build better trust.”

The DWP Board of Commissioners, a panel chosen by the mayor, rejected plans for a ratepayer advocate last year. That decision infuriated then-commission President Nick Patsaouras, who quit the panel soon after.

Since then, Patsaouras has called for a ballot measure that would create an inspector general position to investigate fraud and wrongdoing within the utility. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa has downplayed the need for such a post, saying that ratepayer advocates are his volunteer DWP commissioners, the DWP’s top executive and the city’s elected officials.

Although the proposal is more than a year old, it gained new life earlier this month after the utility signed a three-month contract with Nahai just days after he resigned. Council members also criticized a secret attempt last year to give a $152,000 boost to the pension of Raman Raj, the utility’s No. 2 executive.

Still, Councilmen Tom LaBonge and Dennis Zine said the DWP commission should already seek to protect ratepayers. Zine said he would oppose a new advocate position unless it is a volunteer post.

“We’re putting one more layer of bureaucracy that’s going to cost the ratepayers more money,” he said.

—David Zahniser at L.A. City Hall