After years of public complaints about the DWP budget and bureaucracy, two measures going before Los Angeles voters on March 8 would grant the city greater oversight of the agency.
Measures I and J are the result of a dispute that erupted last year after the Department of Water and Power threatened to withhold a badly needed transfer of $73 million to the city unless the City Council approved a rate hike.
The council eventually passed a smaller rate hike and the DWP Commission transferred the money.
However, the council also devised a ballot measure, Measure I, asking voters to create an Office of Public Accountability, which would include a ratepayer advocate who would review proposed increases in water and power rates.
A separate issue, Measure J, would require the DWP to act on its budget before the City Council adopts its own financial plan, so there is no confusion about the amount of the annual transfer.
Nick Patsaouras, former president of the DWP Commission, was the driving force behind the ratepayer advocate proposal, starting from his days when he was president of the civilian panel.
"When I served as president, it became obvious to me the public and elected leaders were not getting all the information, in a timely manner, that they should have," Patsaouras said. "Everything that was done there was driven by a political agenda of the management and not the public concerns.
"I think they were motivated by other things and no one really wanted to fight them until we had this battle this last year."
Patsaouras said the most important aspect of Measure I is the creation of a ratepayer advocate who would be an impartial party in reviewing rate increases.
"We will have a full-time office looking at the department and advising the commission and elected officials on what is needed," he said.
City officials were concerned over whether the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents DWP workers, would campaign against the two measures.
But Brian D'Arcy, business manager of the local, does not plan to campaign on either proposal.
"IBEW Local 18 has not taken a position on any of the measures on the March 8 ballot," D'Arcy said in a statement.
There is no organized opposition to either measure.
The DWP has a significant impact on the lives of every resident and business in Los Angeles. For years, it has maintained an aloof attitude toward City Hall and the public.
But, in the last five years, there have been a series of rate increases with little explanation or review as numerous general managers - six in four years - have tried to get control of the agency.
The latest general manager, consultant Ron Nichols, was confirmed in December.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry said she is speaking to various groups on behalf of the measure, but is not planning a broad public campaign.
"All of us who believe in this are out there speaking to as many groups as we can," Perry said. "The reason we need this is the debacle of last year."
Last summer, the DWP requested a .8 cent increase in its Energy Cost Adjustment Factor. The council wanted to reduce it, but the DWP board refused to cut the rate and threatened to hold off on $73 million of its planned transfer to the general fund.
The council refused to back down and the agency agreed to make the transfer in return for a smaller rate hike taking effect later.
"There are a lot of questions from the public and what I tell them is that if they want transparency and want to see why any rate increase is needed, we must have this Office of Public Accountability and the ratepayer advocate."
The issue of the budget came up as part of last summer's debate, when officials complained the City Council needed to know in advance the size of the DWP budget, if rate increases are being planned and how large the annual transfer will be.
The City Council had wanted to place a third measure affecting the DWP on the ballot, which would have taken some of the mayor's authority away on appointing the general manager and commissioners.
Villaraigosa vetoed the proposal, saying it would serve to diffuse authority over the agency.