Los Angeles City Council members poked and prodded, but mostly endorsed, a proposed Department of Water and Power labor contract at an open hearing Friday.
The hearing, which one councilman called "unprecedented" for offering a peek into a typically secret process, allowed top city officials engaged for months in private talks with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers the chance to sell a labor plan they say will save the city-owned utility -- and by extension, its customers -- as much as $7.9 billion over the next 30 years.
But the hearing also allowed DWP customers, who appeared unimpressed by Friday's sales pitch, the chance to vent about high utility bills from a company that employs some of the highest-paid workers in the city. Almost 60 percent of Department of Water and Power employees are paid $100,000 or more a year compared with 22 percent in the general city workforce and 33 percent among police officers and firefighters.
The labor union "has continued to fleece the public and we keep feeding the monster over and over and over again," said ratepayer Olga Hall as she addressed council members at today's open hearing.
"We talk and talk and talk and talk, but are we really trying to find a solution?" she asked the panel.
A parade of city officials said Friday they are indeed working toward a fix in response to ratepayer grievances.
The proposed labor agreement would result in a 1.8 to 2.6 percent reduction in water bills and a 1.2 to 1.8 percent reduction in electric bills, according to a report prepared by the City Council adviser, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller.
The city's chief labor negotiator, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, said labor talks started almost 18 months ago, after a 2010 lawsuit opened up a unique opportunity to strike a new deal with DPW workers that would repeal some costly decisions by past elected officials.
The proposed agreement that came out of those talks would defer a 2 to 4 percent cost-of-living raise, freeze wages for three years and rewrite pension terms. The plan also would reduce salaries for new hires to entry level positions -- such as clerks and custodians -- matching their pay to those of other city workers.
Much of the talk Friday was directed primarily at Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has made it a mission in his first two months since assuming office to exact deeper concessions from the IBEW, which represents 8,200 workers -- about 90 percent of the utility's workforce -- and which helped raise more than $4 million to support Garcetti's election opponent Wendy Greuel.
Garcetti made clear in a statement Thursday that while he appreciates that "there are cost savings on the table that are worth pursuing," he "will not sign (IBEW's) proposal because it limits further DWP reforms, specifically to the department's costly and inefficient work rules."
"The voters of Los Angeles have been clear -- they want fundamental DWP reform and so do I," he said.
The mayor's aide, Yusef Robb, said Friday Garcetti wants flexibility in the proposed agreement to negotiate potentially costly work rules, such as sick leave and overtime procedures, without being locked into contractual obligations on those rules for years to come.
Santana said Friday the current deal is not the end of the road for negotiations.
"This is about progress, not perfection ... it is not the be all, end all," he said. "There is a lot that needs to continue to make this proposal better and to continue over the next four years," the full term of the contract.
The proposed agreement now hinges on the scheduled Oct. 1 cost-of-living increase, which would be postponed if the deal is accepted. Some council members have given themselves until Sept. 1 to decide whether to accept the deal.
If they accept it, the labor union would still need to get a draft memorandum of understanding ratified by its members before it comes back to be voted on by the full City Council. The mayor wields veto power over the City Council decision, but the council also can override his veto.
If no deal was struck, some city officials fear a battle with the labor union once the current contract expires in 2014.
The City Council may opt to call an impasse, an exhaustive process that, if successful, could allow the city to impose employment terms on the union. However, that might prod the union into going on strike.
DWP customers and members of the public have another opportunity to learn about and give input on the proposed deal at a 7 p.m. town hall meeting at City Hall on Monday.
Krystee Clark, a Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood council member, pushed for more opportunities for the public to weigh in, telling council members Friday that "until our ideas are heard, then it doesn't really matter."
The town hall will be hosted by the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and will be attended by Independent Ratepayer Advocate Fred Pickel, DWP General Manager Ron Nichols, the DWP MOU Committee's Tony Wilkinson, the DWP Advocacy Committee's Jack Humphreville, Council President Herb Wesson, Budget and Finance Committee Chair Paul Krekorian, Energy and Environment Committee Chair Felipe Fuentes and Deputy Mayor Rick Cole.
-- City News Service