The Department of Water and Power’s ratepayer advocate is more than halfway through his five-year term as the first occupant of the office created to give the public an ear and a voice at the giant utility.
Are DWP customers being heard louder than before? Is the DWP less mysterious?
Most would say no, and in that sense the recent criticism of ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel and his Office of Public Accountability is justified.
Calls for Pickel to be ousted are premature at best. But it’s OK if they put more pressure on the independent analyst and his staff to get their current project right. Their report, due early next month, on the DWP’s rate-increase proposal must offer unvarnished insight on the rate plan and whether the department needs all of the more than $1 billion in revenue it would raise over five years.
Then the pressure will be on politicians, the press and the public to make best use of the information as the DWP board, the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti weigh whether to approve the rate hikes.
Are the rate hikes, proposed in July, entirely needed to cover the DWP’s rising costs for infrastructure upgrades, meeting government environmental mandates and improving its customer-service systems? Is the proposed tiered-rates formula, meant to encourage conservation, the right one? Has everything possible been done to hold down costs, including salaries and pensions?
These are exactly the sorts of questions the city’s voters had in mind in 2011 when they created the ratepayer advocate’s office. That was a good decision. And the insider’s knowledge such topics demand is what City Hall had in mind in 2012 when it appointed Pickel. He was a good choice, with his background as an energy-industry consultant with experience in government, accounting and contract negotiations — not to mention the fact he was a DWP customer.
But controversy was inevitable for the aptly named Pickel, caught between DWP management and customers.
It came first in 2013, when the DWP board and the City Council rejected Pickel’s suggestion to delay the feed-in tariff program that he said would cost ratepayers about $250 million more than needed to produce enough solar energy to reduce the city’s reliance on coal.
And it came most recently last week when Jamie Court, president of the influential Consumer Watchdog, blasted Pickel in a letter to City Hall and a commentary in this newspaper. Court took issue with Pickel’s support for the legal settlement — announced in August but rejected by a judge — between the DWP and ratepayers who sued to recoup money lost to the messed-up billing system. Court charged that Pickel has been “virtually absent as a force for ratepayers during the (DWP’s) scandals,” and said the fact Pickel had worked for energy companies made him a “bad choice” for the role.
“No one knows his office exists,” Court said, calling for Garcetti to replace Pickel and “fund a fully operational advocate’s office.”
An overstatement, certainly. But that doesn’t mean the advocate can’t be more visible and that L.A. residents and leaders can’t make better use of him.
The advocate can make a big difference in helping L.A. to better understand what the DWP is, and shouldn’t be, doing. The office must not be wasted.