Friday, April 20, 2007

My Story In CITYWATCH On DWP Contracting Scandal!

Public Hosed Down at DWP Board Meet

By Brady Westwater

LA’s Board of Water and Power Commissioners surreptitiously maneuvered two expensive and controversial issues through the public meeting process under the radar on Wednesday and then argued that because the deal they approved was a good one, they it didn’t need any public airing. Had it not been for a Daily News article alerting the public – and the Neighborhood Council’s – the Board might have managed their slight of hand in total darkness.

Ignoring their own agenda, the commissioners refused to have general public comment at the beginning of the meeting. The two questionable motions (agenda items 10 & 11) were then called out of order and, with no discussion among themselves and with no explanation about what was being voted upon, the board approved both motions. As a final insult, the board also refused to allow public comment on either item, silencing the members of the public who had left work on short notice and driven down to the Harbor to testify before the commissioners voted on these motions.

Now I do not know what the DWP’s policies are, but I can think of no other LA City agency that refuses public comment of any kind before they vote on listed agenda items.

Even more Byzantine, though, was the secrecy surrounding agenda item 10.

The agenda description stated that it was an amendment to the agreement between the Department of Water and Power and its union and related to the construction of trunk lines. No mention was made of what the changes were. There was a clickable link on the DWP website to reach the document but it still did not say what was being changed.

The one major new piece of information was that under fiscal impacts. It was a N/A (non-applicable) item; which would mean there is no fiscal impact from this action, suggesting it was just a minor technical adjustment to the MOU with the union.

Again, wrong.

Withheld from the public prior to the meeting was a second document, hidden from sight, unless one knew it existed. And even then, one had to make a special request to see it before the meeting. Hard to do if its existence is kept hidden. Begging the question – if a motion passes based on notations indicating that there are no fiscal impacts – when in fact there are– is that motion still legal?

This brings us to the content of the motion 10.

The City of Los Angeles is in desperate need of updating its DWP infrastructure; major (i.e.Active Image trunk) water lines across the city are in urgent need of replacement. But for two years this work has been held up in a dispute within the DWP on who was going to do this – DWP crews – or private contractors?

This is particularly relevant to rate payers since, according to the Daily News article, DWP documents state that the union crews can take up to twice as long, cost twice as much money – and, at times, deliver poorer quality work-- than private contractors. To quote the Daily News: “In one example cited, a private contractor bid $6.2 million to install a 42-inch pipeline beneath Burbank Boulevard and White Oak Avenue, a project estimated to take 250 days. When the union objected, the project was turned over to DWP crews, who completed the work in 439 days at a cost of $13.8 million. “

And, “A staff report showed that DWP crews cost 161 percent to 221 percent more than if outside contractors had handled the job. They also noted that the DWP had assigned 31 employees to install the Parthenia trunk line while a contractor had just 13 working on the Hollywood-Stone Canyon trunk line.”

So what was yesterday’s motion? Well, it was to increase by one-third the number of DWP employees hired to build trunk lines at substantially higher costs and far longer time periods than if those trunk lines were built by private contractors. And the cost cited likely does not include all the internal support staff required by all the new employees or the decades of health and pension payments after these employees retire, making even those much higher costs estimates unrealistically low.

This brings up two questions. First, why should it take twice as many DWP workers twice as long to do a job as private workers – and then, allegedly, have the work at least sometimes be of lower quality? I can not believe there is that great a difference in work skills. Could union work rules be deliberately designed to make projects last twice as long as necessary? Is it due to feather-bedding, unseen since the days when Boss Tweed bled the taxpayers of New York dry? I don’t know and I can’t find anyone else who does.

The irony is that the union, by refusing to address these problems, is unfairly maligning the skills of DWP workers and is costing its members hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs they might have if they were competitive with private contractors.
Second, how could the DWP have allowed a politically powerful union – which donates substantial sums to the politicians who approve their contracts and pay raises (and that may have just answered that question) – to dictate how the DWP is run? And what can be done when a city department – and a city – is held hostage by a union?

These are the types of issues that need to be exposed to the light of day. That deserves to be publicly discussed and debated. But do not expect to see that kind of debate or discussion soon at the Board of Water and Power Commissioners.

So the next time the DWP comes to the Neighborhood Council’s with a request for rate increases, or the next time your neighborhood’s streets are torn up and the construction takes twice as long as normal or the next time you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic due to construction delays throughout the city – be sure to send a thank you note to the mayor-appointed DWP Board of Commissioners for making it all possible. (Brady Westwater is a writer, community activist and Chair of the LA Neighborhood Councils Congress.)

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