Like the name of God that must remain unspoken, Austin Beutner’s name never was uttered during the lengthy City Council debate Wednesday on why the Department of Water and Power’s Board of Commissioners unilaterally cut the utility’ss ties to the City of Los Angeles on Sept. 7.
Yet Beutner’s presence could be felt in everything that was said as DWP pension officials futilely tried to defend the decision to end a 30-year-old policy of reciprocity that allowed workers to transfer easily between utility and other city jobs.
Their pension contributions moved with them but the city’s and the DWP’s matching contributions stayed in place — a policy that caused little friction as long as the numbers of transfers were few and more or less balanced.
But as the city budget crisis has deepened in recent years, the mayor and Council have been using the bottomless pit of ratepayer money at the DWP to create jobs for city workers facing layoffs and furloughs.
The result is 1,700 workers with an average of seven years time on the city payroll found themselves fortunate to be moved to the DWP while only 270 moved from the DWP to the city payroll.
Since DWP jobs pay as much as 50 percent more than city jobs for the same work, the transfers have added $183 million to the DWP pension plan’s unfunded liability — a lot of money to most of us but a drop in the bucket compared to the billions and billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities in the three city pension systems.
The DWP’s solution was to put a gun to the city’s head: Give us the money or no more transfers.
On Sept. 7, the DWP Board terminated the reciprocity agreement and slammed the door on transfers — no small matter since revenue to the city general fund keeps declining and plans were in the works to hide even more city workers on the DWP payroll in the months ahead.
Beutner is both the DWP Board’s master and its servant so the responsibility for this action is clearly his. Yet his unspeakable name was never spoke.
As first deputy mayor, he oversees all things DWP. He decides on who sits on the commission and defines mayoral policies for the DWP.
As interim DWP general manager, he makes sure his orders are carried out by the commissioners and the staff.
It is as clear a conflict of interest and total undermining of process as there ever could be.
Yet the name Austin Beutner was unspoken as Councilwoman Jan Perry, in her continuing challenge of DWP policies, and her colleagues grilled DWP officials about what they had done before unanimously voting to veto the Board of Commissioners’ action.
Perhaps the name Beutner is not only unspoken but unspeakable. And for good reason.
To take on the one and only person responsible for this unilateral severing of ties to the city would mean all-out war between the mayor’s office and the Council.
The Council would rather pick at the edges of the DWP, overruling rate hikes, canceling contracts and advocating for a Rate Payer Advocate than to face the truth that their problem is with Beutner.
The conflict began with the power rate hike fiasco in the spring just before Beutner took over the DWP and has escalated since then as he has defended the DWP past actions even as he has reversed many of its policies and shuffled the management
This really isn’t about rates or pension policies. It’s about power and accountability — or the lack of it at City Hall.
By its failure to confront Beutner head-on, the Council is doing what it always does: Ducking the real issue.
That’s why problems never get solved and nearly everything the city does is fraught with waste and inefficiency. In a word, failure.