Consumer Group Wants L.A. Officials To Oust DWP Ratepayer Advocate

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Years ago, Los Angeles voters decided that the city needed an independent advocate to scrutinize water and electricity rates and stand up for customers at the Department of Water and Power.

Now a Santa Monica-based consumer advocacy group wants city leaders to oust the man who holds that job, arguing that he has failed to speak up as scandals dogged the utility.

In a letter sent this week to MayorEric Garcetti and City Atty. Mike Feuer, Consumer Watchdog said that Fred Pickel, head of the Office of Public Accountability, should be replaced with “a true consumer advocate.”

“Fred Pickel has been absent and done almost nothing,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “No one knows his office exists.”

Garcetti defended Pickel’s office while appearing Thursday on “Ask the Mayor” on KNX-AM (1070), saying that the ratepayer advocate has had “some very tough people that are working with him who really do hold the feet to the fire of the Department of Water and Power.” DWP General Manager Marcie Edwards added that Pickel “has been a huge thorn — and I realize that that’s his job.”

The push to eject Pickel comes in the middle of a public battle over a proposed lawsuit settlement tied to $44 million in faulty bills from the DWP, a dispute in which Pickel and the consumer group have taken opposing sides.

Pickel vouched for a legal deal that Consumer Watchdog and several attorneys argue gives the utility too much power over refunds for erroneous bills. In a legal declaration, Pickel said the proposed settlement provides “reasonable restitution.”

Lawyers backing that settlement contend that the other attorneys are simply trying to obstruct it in order to get higher fees. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has held off on approving the settlement and asked for revisions as the feud continues.

Consumer Watchdog's Court said Pickel was a bad choice for the job because he had previously worked to defend energy companies rather than customers. In the letter, Consumer Watchdog argued that, as a consultant, Pickel was “part of the Enron conspiracy that defrauded Californians” by co-writing a report for Enron on the benefits of electricity deregulation and a memo on the Western electricity market.

Pickel said he underwent an “extensive review process” before being chosen as ratepayer advocate and that “the city was aware of my background.” He pointed out that his career included work done in opposition to Enron as well as for the company.

Pickel declined to comment further on the arguments raised in the Consumer Watchdog letter, but said that his office “has had plenty to say on the billing system challenges.”

In a July report on the billing debacle, Pickel recommended a host of changes to speed up DWP hiring and contracting, labeling it as a root cause of problems during and after the disastrous billing system rollout.

Earlier in his tenure, heraised concernsabout what a solar program would cost ratepayers.

Jack Humphreville, chair of the Neighborhoods Councils’ DWP Advocacy Committee, said he would give Pickel a B or a B+ as ratepayer advocate.

Humphreville said he thought Pickel should have been more aggressive in representing ratepayers when it came to some “pet projects” — including an Arts District hub for green technology — but said Pickel had helped moderate proposed increases in rates.

“Having industry knowledge is what gives him credibility,” Humphreville said.

Los Angeles voters opted to create the Office of Public Accountability in the aftermath of a battle between the DWP and the City Council over rate hikes.

City officials tapped Pickel to head that office more than three years ago after a committee of mayoral and City Council appointees unanimously selected him among scores of candidates.

He holds a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ran his own consulting company. The city pays him more than $270,000 annually, including a car allowance.

Former DWP head S. David Freeman said he didn’t know how Pickel was handling the job, but said that he had opposed having such a position at all, calling it “useless.”

“With all due respect to my good friend the mayor, it may have been politically attractive to have a ratepayer advocate, but it’s kind of like putting an ant up against an elephant,” Freeman said. “They couldn’t possibly have the resources.”

Pickel is expected to weigh in later this year on proposed changes in water and power rates.

Follow @latimesemily on Twitter for what's happening at Los Angeles City Hall.

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