On March 3, 2009, voters in the city of Los Angeles will be asked to consider Measure B, a ballot initiative that will require the LA DWP to implement 400 megawatts of solar energy on roof tops around Los Angeles. While it would seem easy to pass a ballot initiative for solar energy in L.A., the vote comes on the heels of an audit by City Controller Laura Chick, which questions the DWP's ability to plan and implement such a program. MIR recently spoke with Controller Chick about the recent audit and her decision to oppose Measure B on the upcoming citywide ballot.
The Daily News recently reported that you will vote "no" on L.A. Measure B on the March 3rd citywide ballot. Most people know very little about Measure B, other than its name. What led you to oppose the Measure B charter amendment?
Let's start with the process. I'm not a process person; I'm an outcome person. But I am absolutely aware that how you get to an outcome affects that outcome. This measure was not been done in a thoughtful, analytical way. It was not done, in my opinion, with adequate public discussion and education. It happened so quickly that many of the very people who voted to put it on the ballot have subsequently been saying, "We still have-two or three weeks out from the election-serious unanswered questions about important things, such as how much it is going to cost." It's egregious to put something on the ballot and ask people to vote for it when it hasn't been properly vetted and the elected leadership says that they have unanswered questions.
Secondly, I find Measure B exceedingly confusing. I have so many unanswered basic questions. Why is it on the ballot in the first place? Why are we being asked to vote on this now before a really thoughtful plan is presented on how we're going to achieve these solar energy goals? I choose, inevitably, to vote no on something that I don't find easily understandable or logical. That's how I feel as a voter, much less an elected city controller.
Now I have done some research. I have the benefit of reading PA Consultant's five-year management study of the Department of Water and Power. Maybe the strongest reason I am voting no is because I have now seen close up (and so can the public by going on my website and at least reading the executive summary of this five year study) that the DWP-the nation's largest water and power public utility-is not ready for the 21st century. Not by a long stretch.
If someone asked me what DWP is going to be doing in 3 to 5 years, I couldn't answer. They do not have a plan. They have very serious systems and technology challenges. They have serious workforce problems, from training to succession planning to having an adequate workforce. They have business procedure problems. Their procurement process is a mess. They can't move quickly on any of the hedging activities, on natural gas procurement, or on some of the essential things that we need in place in order to diversify our energy portfolio to bring in significant percentages of renewables. LADWP is not ready internally to exclusively manage and deliver on the promises of Measure B.
I'm not saying that we need to create hoops for the department to jump through before they can do anything innovative on renewables. I'm simply saying that this is not a department that I want to give an added mandate to right now. I want them to fulfill their primary mandate, which is to provide healthy water and reliable energy at affordable prices. Secondly, they can move ahead full speed by putting in solar, wind, and a variety of other forms of renewables without the vote of the public on a City Charter reform measure. There is some type of sham and game going on, but I haven't totally figured it out. I have just figured out enough to know that the wise thing to do on Prop B is to vote "no."
You mentioned that you don't understand why Measure B is on the citywide ballot. What reasons have been offered by proponents for placing this on the ballot without having a single public LADWP hearing or offering a plan of implementation?
Some of this is what I've read, some of it's what I've heard as rumors in City Hall, and some of this is my own editorializing: Certainly the mayor has made very grand goals about renewables. One theory is that the mayor takes his commitments and goals seriously and he is pushing very hard to achieve those goals. Certainly it's a worthwhile goal that no one in city leadership opposes. There is another theory that says we know a stimulus package is coming from D.C. and that there is going to be focus on the creation of green jobs, so we want to be positioned to capture some of that money. Another theory is that this will lock in solar efforts inside the DWP with IEUW workers-to keep these jobs as in-house union jobs. With all three of those theories, I would respond that we could still go full steam ahead with a bold solar initiative without asking the voters to change the City Charter.
An analytical report commissioned by LADWP and produced by PA Consulting estimated the cost of Measure B to be $3.5 billion or more. The DWP rejected those findings and came back with a report in early February (while voters were voting absentee), saying that Measure B would cost of as much as $1.6 billion, not counting tax credits. At the same time, as you mentioned, the city has submitted a $2 billion request for federal stimulus funding for the very same project. How much do you believe Measure B will cost to implement?
That's the whole point. No one can quite figure it out. These are gross estimates. The huge difference between one consultant's report and the other depends on whether you're looking through rose-colored glasses at the most positive, optimistic scenario on all the numbers and coming up with the lowest potential cost, or if you are using real numbers and real costs that exist today instead of anticipating lower costs, savings, and the rosy picture. PA Consulting used conservative but real to-date costs. The Huron report based their projections on a best-case scenario. Now, I'm sorry, but haven't we all just learned some lessons about counting on the rosy picture and assuming that things will always go up and go the way we want?
Everybody is interested in acquiring green energy. Everybody wants solar energy-private sector energy companies, public sector energy companies, businesses, and homeowners are all interested. When we start to get the manufacturing in line to really start producing the necessary products there is going to be major competition to buy those things as fast as they come out. I don't know how we can predict, given Measure B has never been vetted by LADWP or the public, that L.A. is going to get the very best price out there, especially with everybody else in the marketplace wanting solar panels.
Incorporated in the Mayor's announcement of Measure B was that it was a 1,300-megawatt program: 400 megawatts would be run by DWP employees and the labor supply of DWP, but there are 900 megawatts related to a different set of programs, including feed-in tariffs and other incentives. Has there been any definition about how those other major parts of this 1,300-megawatt program would be administrated, managed, or evaluated? Why is not the entire solar roof program on the ballot?
Not that I am aware of. A great deal of what I'm hearing is that "the details will be worked out later." How's this for trust: "Trust us. We put something on the ballot we didn't fully understand, but vote for it because DWP eventually has to come back with a detailed plan and we'll make sure it's the right plan." The details will be worked out later.
You have been the city controller for eight years and you've been charged with holding the public departments and agencies accountable. Why is it that there is no civic response to this kind of budget planning and policy making? It sure seems to violate the principles of a Controller's Office. Why are people not evaluating it as you would like them to on the basis of response to these questions?
That's a question I pose to myself all the time. How do we get the public more involved and engaged? If they were, not only would this go down in defeat, but the council and mayor would think twice before trying to pull this kind of thing off again. Why don't people pay more attention? Well, I think they are paying a bit more attention on this one. I'm heartened by the amount of blogging and exchanging of information among neighborhood councils and civic activists. I'm hearing a kind of grass roots swell. I'm always hopeful about the public. Maybe there is a chance, even though there is an organized campaign and big money to pass it, that the people are going to say "no."
Tim Rutten of the L.A. Times wrote in late November that if the public loves the way the state capitol in Sacramento does business they will love how the City of LA will work if Measure B is approved. Is that a fair analogy? What is the political signal that would be sent if Measure B were to pass overwhelmingly?
I would be very disheartened with it passing overwhelmingly. It would be a victory for the folks who write the sound bites-the consultants would sit around the table going, "Oh yea! That's a great title for the initiative. Everybody loves the environment," or "Everybody loves political reform; they'll love this." I'm hoping that the message back from the voters is that we are paying attention and that we do care about substance.
Here's my pitch: I keep having this optimistic faith and confidence that the public is not as stupid as the manipulators behind the scenes want to think, that the voters can see through titles, and that the voters do care about the environment but they also care about good government and their pocketbooks.
The arguments in favor of Measure B state that this measure would provide jobs for L.A. residents. What kind of jobs are proponents suggesting will result from this program?
These are the types of details that haven't been given. Green jobs are good jobs. However we eventually go forward with increasing our green portfolio with DWP, there will be new, good jobs in Los Angeles. But again, I do not believe that we have to be voting on anything to be making this happen.
The proponents suggest that all the environmental groups in the basin are supportive. Why do you think the environmental groups have jumped on board given that there have been no hearings? Some have suggested it's because the groups support solar energy and don't really care how it's done. Is that your analysis?
I would think it would be pretty easy to get the support of environmental groups because there is an end goal in mind that is an environmentally desirable one-to have renewable energy. They have been frustrated in trying to get renewable energy in the L.A. basin; they haven't seen any results, and they've being told that the only way to get to this goal is this way.
In 2002, I did an audit of the Green Power Program at DWP and showed that they were spending millions and millions of public dollars on VIP parties, boondoggles, handouts, and public relations contracts. The environmentalist groups then were in favor of DWP's green energy program at the time. Why? Because DWP was giving them money for their worthwhile goals and programs. When my audit came out and showed that not one kilowatt hour of renewable energy had been produced after many years and many millions of dollars, the environmentalist groups became more enthusiastic for what I was calling for, which was a real renewable energy goal in the L.A. basin. I don't fault the environmentalists. They've been frustrated in their hard work to get us to a better place.