The man tapped as the next general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Ron Nichols, appears for the first time Tuesday before the Los Angeles city council's environment committee. KPCC's Molly Peterson sat down with Austin Beutner, the present and interim leader of the DWP, to get a sense of the utility's health.
When he pitched in to run the DWP almost a year ago, Austin Beutner accepted an annual salary of one dollar. He didn't take a second office. As deputy mayor he still works on the 13th floor at L.A. City Hall.
He says that what surprised him most about the publicly-owned utility is the skill and dedication of its employees. "You know we've been through just in my tenure the hottest day in Los Angeles and the wettest day in Los Angeles and the lights still came on and the water flowed."
Beutner's belt-tightening has shrunk expenses and ended the utility's practice of buying renewable energy on the spot market. Beutner calls those purchases costly and unsustainable.
But the DWP remains at a key turning point as it works to meet climate change mandates and renewable energy standards. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa set some of those goals, as Beutner says politicians ought to.
"The department suffers not from its own set of constraints," says Beutner, "but I think public officials throughout the city haven't engaged on some of the decisions that need to be made about the DWP."
Beutner says elected officials should direct the city utility's action – especially when those decisions affect rates. "It's not up to DWP to decide what its renewable portfolio ought to look like or how quickly we ought to transition off of coal. That's the responsibility of elected officials. Given direction the DWP would do an excellent job executing that, I'm pretty confident of that."
Beutner says the general manager's first job is to frame the decisions for public officials. The man who could do that next is Ron Nichols.
Water and Power commissioners appointed Nichols to run the DWP last month. Beutner says headhunters chose energy consultant Nichols after they spoke with hundreds of potential candidates. "He's a hardworking individual. Fair. Levelheaded."
Nichols has worked for the state's water and power authorities, and has consulted on public utility management in New York and other places. Ten years ago during the California energy crisis he arranged power supply contracts and helped get the state's markets back on track.
Outgoing DWP manager Austin Beutner says he admires Nichols’ record. "Our number one objective was to find someone with deep utility power and water side. Very well steeped in California rules and regulations as well. And he's a man with the right temperament to lead DWP forward for the next generation of Angelenos."
The DWP has offered to pay Nichols $345,000 a year – a salary near the top of the range the L.A. City Council approved. Council members must take action for the hire to take effect – the environment committee's vote is the first step in that process.