Phantom boxing with faceless bureaucrats

Posted on | April 22, 2010 | No Comments

The Los Angeles Times reports today that the Mayor is lashing out at “unidentified high-level bureaucrats” within the city’s Department of Water and Power.

It is these mandarin civil servants, we are to believe, who are to blame for thwarting reform, for the mixed messaging about our City finances and for failure of clean energy initiatives.

Did he mention how they run around at night and purposefully cause water main breaks?

Implausible as that sounds, almost any nonsense about the DWP can be floated because the department is hard to fathom. The board meetings are not broadcast live — anyone interested in seeing what it takes to run one of the largest public utilities in the country has to tune into Channel 35 the day after the meetings. But once you do that, it becomes clear just how hard it is to fix aging pipes, deliver power and deal with the too often crazy members of the public who appear during public comment. Tuesday’s board meeting had a guy thanking the board for helping his career in NASCAR and some kind of surfing.

Of course there are problems, some of which were broached by the seemingly sane who took to the microphone. Our bills are hard to read. Make that impossible. The website is a mess. From experience, I can add that simple inquiries for something as innocent as an educational slide show, say how much power is generated by the fall of Owens Valley water to Los Angeles, might take months to answer.

But watch one of these meetings, and listen to the Very Angry Man who showed up to shake a recall-the-Mayor petition, and you come away amazed at the board’s civility and tolerance.

The awful part is that some of the worst of these blowhards are the ones being championed by the City Council in the battle with the Mayor over how steep rate hikes should be, and, latterly, management of the DWP.

No one wants to hear that we should pay more, that the promise of limitless possibility that built Los Angeles was a lie, so it’s not going to be a message that most politicians will be willing to deliver. It’s about as attractive to voters as a Woody Allen tragedy is to movie-goers. That said, nothing justifies the City Council’s glee at having humiliated the Mayor and his outgoing DWP general manager S. David Freeman in their attempt to raise rates sufficiently to pay for green energy. The City Council’s victory was a small one for our change purses at the expense of our future. As such, the prospect of it leading to the Council gaining more control over the DWP is not so much scary as terrifying.

Though this is not obvious, failure or delay to address climate change directly impacts our water supply. This is shrinking rapidly because climate change is steadily reducing snowpack in the Rockies and Sierra.

Less water will in turn mean less power. The great (and relatively green carbon-wise) hydro-electric dams of the last century can’t generate electricity without water flowing through their turbines.

Yelling at the Mayor and board of the Department of Water and Power that we shouldn’t have to pay more does nothing to avert disaster.

Nothing about keeping our pipes water-worthy and full and our lights on will be cheap. The Mayor should have fought back, he should have spelled out the rationale for these expenses with the kind of compelling language that they deserve, not his State of the City speech guff about his Grandpa Pete, and certainly not apres-failure indictments of faceless bureaucrats.

Surely there could be relief programs for those who simply can’t pay their bills (or conserve). But it’s going to be a hell of a lot more expensive down the line as our watersheds dry out from climate change and millions around the dry Southwest are all circling the drain.

Instead, on this, Earth Day, the Mayor is apologizing for losing a battle in which he was right. The City Council is gloating about having been victorious when it was wrong. All are blaming the problem on faceless bureaucrats at the Department of Water and Power  instead of our unrealistic expectation for cheap and plentiful water in a place whose native water supply ran out more than a century ago, and whose borrowed supplies are shrinking because of the filthy way that we generate power.

The new general manager’s op ed piece in today’s LA Times sounds smart. Let’s hope that Austin Beutner understands that he has inherited generations of deferred expenses, of a lifestyle built on unrealistic expectations, and that we not only need a leader who can address these problems, but one who also understands that we can’t fire or vote our way out of them. We have to pay what it will take to address them.


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