Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a proposed Department of Water and Power "customer bill of rights" Tuesday that he says will guarantee improved service for residents, but some critics questioned whether it would actually have any impact.
"Today we are rolling out a customer bill of rights, something that may not sound revolutionary, but for this department it is brand new and it is," Garcetti said, adding that it would guarantee certain levels of service for customers and financial rebates and credits if the promises are not kept.
The document includes assurances that call wait times will not exceed three minutes on average, bills that exceed three times the average historic use for the same billing period will automatically be reviewed before being sent out and requests to start a new residential account will be processed within one business day.
Customers will receive rebates or credits if the guarantees are not met. For example, if the department takes longer than 10 days after the final inspection to process a new business service connection of 200 amps or less, that business will receive a $25 credit.
"If approved, I have full confidence in the Department of Water and Power's ability to meet each of these goals, because I know a few years ago we wouldn't have been able to meet these promises," Garcetti said before a meeting of the DWP commission, which deferred a vote on the bill of rights until a later meeting.
The board's members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. If approved by the commission, the bill of rights would also have to be voted on by the City Council. When David Wright was confirmed by the council in September as the DWP's general manager, Garcetti said one of the first tasks he wanted him to undertake was developing and implementing a customer bill of rights.
Wright said Tuesday the department is ready to stand by the bill of rights thanks to the increased personnel that have been hired over the last two years, including 300 customer service representatives and several hundred new billers. The LADWP has been rocked publicly by a number of scandals in recent years, and the customer bill of rights directly addresses some of the problems that have emerged.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted preliminary approval in November to a class-action settlement expected to result in at least $67.5 million refunded to DWP customers over a glitchy billing system several years ago that resulted in some customers receiving wildly inflated bills and others receiving no bills at all. Customers who received the inflated bills also had to contact the department themselves to try to sort out the issue, and sometimes would get more erroneous bills.
The proposed bill of rights calls for the department to red flag any bills over three times the average before they are sent out. Customers also were reported to have call wait times of up to 40 minutes, but LADWP officials said the wait times have been under a minute for the last 10 months.
"We have now been able credibly to promise that the wait time for a customer to call the DWP on any number of issues -- and they won't be calling as often because the issues have largely been addressed -- but the wait time is guaranteed to be under three minutes," said Board of Commissioners President Mel Levine.
Jack Humphreville, president of the DWP Advocacy Committee, which represents Los Angeles neighborhood councils in matters related to the department, said his committee had not been consulted on the bill of rights. He said he is skeptical it will have any true impact.
As for service guarantees, Humphreville told City News Service there was "nothing objectionable" in the bill of rights but "that is sort of 101, they should be doing that already. Yes, it sounds good, but it is no big deal." Humphreville was critical that the bill doesn't talk about any guarantees for ratepayer fees, and also said he was concerned the department might eventually use the document to justify rate hikes. "It doesn't talk about rates or the impact on homeowners. It doesn't talk about the impact on businesses and stuff like that," he said.
Inflated bills and long wait times aren't the only problems the department has experienced lately. In June, the department sued PricewaterhouseCoopers, which handled the troubled rollout of the billing system, saying its officials had intentionally over-billed the city and spent the money, in part, on prostitutes and two lavish bachelor parties in Las Vegas.
In April of 2015, City Controller Ron Galperin and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana released audits of two trusts that receive a combined $4 million in annual payments from the DWP and were highly critical of them, saying they lacked methods of tracking and controlling their spending on contracts and travel expenses.
The department ranked last in J.D. Power's 2016 Customer Satisfaction Index Ranking for large electric utility companies on the West Coast, and in 2011 it was ranked the 13th "most-hated company in America" by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Glenn Bailey, treasurer of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, complained that the bill of rights was scheduled for a commission vote Tuesday without any public notice of its details.
The wording of the bill of rights was not included on the meeting agenda, which was made publicly available late last week, but it did state there would be a vote on it. Representatives of the mayor's office and the LADWP on Friday told City News Service the details were still being worked on and would not be ready until Tuesday morning.
"Instead, the LADWP posted the proposed policy just a few hours ago on its website in an obscure location, even though the item had been on the (commission's) agenda since it was distributed four days ago," Bailey said. "How can the public, let alone the commissioners, provide meaningful and thoughtful input prior to adoption of this policy with essentially no notice?" Bailey suggested withholding of the details of the bill of rights could be a violation of the Brown Act, a state law that guides public government meetings and states that supporting materials produced by the city must be made public 72 hours in advance of a public meeting where a vote on the issue is going to be held.
The DWP's Joe Ramallo told City News Service the details of the bill of rights were not completed until over the weekend and because of the New Year holiday could not be made public until Tuesday morning. Because only materials that are completed are supposed to be made public before a meeting, he said the department does not believe there was a Brown Act violation.
To view the full text of the LADWP Customer Bill of Rights, visit www.ladwp.com/customerbillofrights