Residents continue to be dismayed over the dramatically rising utility bills and register complaints with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Other residents feel there is nothing they can do to fight DWP, and just pay the bills.
There is supposed to be an option. In 2011, a voter-approved Charter Amendment established an Office of Public Accountability.
Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Dr. Frederick Pickel as the first ratepayer advocate.
Pickel, whose starting salary was $276,000 (and is funded by LADWP ratepayers), was supposed to analyze rate hikes and deal with customer complaints. He was supposed to provide an independent analysis of any changes by DWP and City Officials.
His job was to look out for ratepayers.
In “The Price of Pickel” a Consumer Watchdog report:
*Pickel endorsed power and water rate hikes of $1.1 billion between 2016 and 2020 without questioning whether other monies might be available to offset rate hikes on burdened ratepayers. The utility holds $1.6 billion in cash reserves.
*Pickel endorsed a new 5-year IBEW contract in 2017 hiking salaries by 13-22 percent for a total $280 million when DWP employees are among the highest-paid utility workers in the country and earn two-and-a-half times more on average than other workers in comparable L.A. jobs.
*Pickel, a former energy consultant, criticized a successful solar program to pay large-scale commercial and residential developers for power sold back to DWP at a fraction of that tab for being too expensive.
*Pickel stayed silent on illegal transfers to city coffers of “surplus” power rates of about $1 billion since 2012 to be used for purposes other than utility services. (See story, originally published in March 2021, and republished today, about transfers.)
*Pickel, in 2017, endorsed a plan to shoulder up to $140 million annually during drought years to fund Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial North-South water diversion project, though ratepayers will not see additional water supplies from the scheme that subsidizes massive agricultural interests.
*Pickel failed to improve customer service that ranks at the bottom of major Western regional utilities, starting with failing to fend off a massive, but avoidable, software billing scandal in 2013. The $193 million system is costing at least $20 million to fix, while a legal settlement calls for DWP to pay ratepayers back $67.5 million for rampant over-billing.
In a 2018 Consumer Watchdog story, “L.A.’s ‘Ratepayer Advocate’ Has Us All in a Pickle,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court wrote in a letter to Garcetti:
“The price of Pickel’s unwillingness to advocate for ratepayers is billions of dollars and you are complicit if you rehire Mr. Pickel without a comprehensive review of his performance.”
Pickel was reappointed, 10-1, by the City Council in 2018. Paul Koretz was the sole no vote, noting there should be a job review – which the ratepayer advocate still has not undergone.
According to a 2018 L.A. Times Story “L.A.City Council Reappoints Department of Water and Power Watchdog,” Jasmin Vargas, a senior organizer with Food & Watcher Watch said, “What we’ve seen him advocate for are the Department of Water and Power positions, not necessarily the ratepayer.”
In 2019, under Transparent California, Pickel’s base pay was $299,584, other pay was listed as $19,599, benefits were $111, 265, with total pay and benefits $430,449.
(Editor’s note: According to his biography, Pickel graduated from Harvey Mudd College, and received his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a founder of Wilshire Energy Consulting Group Inc. and serving as Vice President at Tabors Caramanis & Associates as well as working with a variety of other organizations including Arthur Anderson’s business risk management and utility consulting teams, Southern California Gas and its affiliates, New England Electric, SRI International’s Decision Analysis Group and the Federal Power Commission.)