In a move to mend public trust between ratepayers and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the Los Angeles City Council June 29 approved the ordinance needed to begin building an independent ratepayer advocate office to oversee the nation\u2019s largest municipal utility. The council moved none too soon, according to neighborhood council members who spoke at the hearing. \u201cWe do have to have some objective review of the coming rate increase,\u201d said Chuck Ray, vice president of the Neighborhood Council LADWP Oversight Committee. Under the ordinance adopted this week on a 12-0 vote, various members of the city council are to appoint five citizens to a panel that names an executive director of the new office. That office is to start out with a budget of more than $1 million and authority to hire needed staff. Selection of the first executive director of a new office of public accountability could be completed as early as August. City staff advised the council the new director would develop a long-term plan for staffing the office that could well entail an almost immediate budget increase. One of the staff members is expected to work exclusively on ratepayer advocacy. City council president Eric Garcetti said the office is needed because \u201ctrust between the ratepayers and the department was broken\u201d when the muni in 2010 proposed a 28 percent power rate increase without sufficient justification. He said the new office will help make sure that future LADWP rate increases \u201care honest and based on the numbers.\u201d Its executive director is to serve a five-year term and be subject to removal only by a two-thirds vote of the city council. The ordinance--which Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to sign by today--is the first of several that are expected. Succeeding ordinances are planned to establish qualifications for the executive director position and to outline how the office operates. The office--called for by a voter-passed initiative in March--is to carry out numerous duties. It is to act as a ratepayer advocate when it comes to LADWP rate hikes, perform financial and management audits of the department, and investigate customer complaints. Los Angeles lawmakers acted against the backdrop of a plan the LADWP is putting together to boost its revenue in order to meet environmental mandates on global warming, renewable energy, and once-through cooling, as well as rebuild its aging infrastructure. Last month, LADWP general manager Ron Nichols unveiled a preliminary plan that calls for a 16.8 percent power rate hike phased in over three years. A water rate increase also is planned (Current, June 17, 2011). Consumer advocate Ray told city lawmakers that while a rate hike is probably justified, without a ratepayer advocate in place there\u2019s already a strong \u201ccampaign\u201d among neighborhood councils to block any increase whatsoever. Neighborhood councils operate in an advisory role on policy under the city charter. Nichols, though, maintained to the city council earlier this month the muni wants to have a rate hike in place by November to avoid any possibility its bond rating could be lowered due to inadequate revenue. El Sereno Neighborhood Council member Clyde Williams beseeched local lawmakers that if the accountability office cannot be formed by fall, the muni should consider a small, temporary rate hike to satisfy creditors until a ratepayer advocate can fully vet a long-term rate hike. Ray said another alternative is for the mayor to appoint an interim executive director of the office to review the rate hike while a permanent director is being hired. Lawmakers pledged any long-term rate increase would have to go through the new ratepayer advocate.