In 2011, when Angelenos were considering a ballot measure to create a "ratepayer advocate" to monitor the Department of Water and Power, the Times editorial board endorsed the idea, with a caveat. We said the advocate should be a well-regarded professional with deep expertise in utility operations, not a populist bomb thrower solely interested in blocking rate increases. And that's exactly what Los Angeles got in Fred Pickel — for better and worse.
Pickel, a longtime energy industry consultant who in 2012 became the first ratepayer advocate, has made the Office of Public Accountability a methodical, behind-the-scenes force pushing to make the DWP more cost-efficient and accountable. Yet last week, the Santa Monica-based advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog called for Pickel's ouster, arguing that he's failed to speak out on behalf of ratepayers and that he's not a "true consumer advocate." The group is targeting Pickel in part because he supported a proposed legal settlement that would provide refunds to customers to resolve the DWP's $44-million overbilling scandal. Consumer Watchdog argues that the deal is inadequate. A judge has asked for revisions.
But it's hard to peg Pickel as anti-consumer simply because he consulted for energy companies (including Enron, for which he wrote a report 20 years ago on the potential impact of energy deregulation). One of Pickel's assets is that he knows the utility business and can independently vet DWP's business plans and proposed rate hikes, which is his mandate under the city charter.
Consumer Watchdog is wrong to suggest Pickel is a tool of industry, but the group does raise one legitimate criticism: He has not been vocal enough in his critiques or public enough in his consumer protection role. The job of ratepayer advocate comes with a bully pulpit, and Pickel has not used it effectively. He has dug deep into the utility's operational and financial issues, but his recommendations have gotten buried in technical reports. He seems to understand that the utility's various scandals and challenges are the result of deep-rooted problems, from the entrenched power of the DWP union to political micromanaging by City Hall. These are problems that can be fixed only if there is constant public pressure on the utility and city officials, which starts with an outspoken ratepayer advocate expressing a sense of urgency.
The coming weeks will be a big test for Pickel's office. The DWP has proposed a major five-year rate increase that is supposed to help replace the utility's aging infrastructure. Pickel's voice will be crucial to the discussion and, ultimately, to whether ratepayers get a fair deal. He needs to speak up.