New DWP chief David Nahai takes on major challenges

David Nahai is an environmentalist and an attorney, not an engineer, and his major previous management challenge was running a 15-employee law firm. But he is the man Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tapped take on the $304,000-a-year job as general manager of the Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest — and frequently troubled — public municipal utility. He’s also the first ever to helm the DWP without decades of experience in either the utility business or city government.

The challenges Nahai faces at the DWP are great: The state of California has mandated a greener operation, even as the utility and the region needs new infrastructure. And all this has to be accomplished as rate payer backlashes rise against proposed rate hikes — hikes that Nahai insists are needed to renew the utility.

In addition, the 8,500-person DWP workforce, one of highest paid in the nation, is proving confrontational: Brian D’Arcy, the pugnacious business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ DWP Local 18, has already launched an aggressive mail campaign charging decrepit operations — a situation that D’Arcy (who did not return calls asking for comment) unsurprisingly sees as remediable by more work hours and more hiring.

Nahai admits that after nearly a decade of workforce buyouts and massive retirements, DWP does need more people — a possible future point of agreement with the IBEW chief. Nahai’s predecessor, retired DWP president Ron Deaton, reportedly refused to meet D’Arcy, but in a sign of a new conciliatory attitude, Nahai said: “I’d like to set the direction and get Brian to go along. The union is really indistinguishable from the workforce itself — and that’s our greatest single resource.”

DWP also needs to shift away from considering itself a private corporation, Nahai said. “It’s a public agency, dedicated to the city of Los Angeles and its 4 million residents.” The pioneer century-old, civic-owned utility must now, under law, turn itself into the most environmentally friendly power producer in the nation. Nahai said he’s ready and eager to meet this challenge.

“There is history to be made here,” said Nahai, a slender, precisely dressed 55-year-old who stands just under six feet. “DWP should become a beacon to innovators all over the world.”

Can he make this happen, though? And without high rate increases?

Nahai believes that in the long run, at least, he can — particularly taking into account the cash and human costs of emissions from DWP’s out-of-state coal plants that now must close or convert. As fossil fuel costs go up, the relative costs of solar and wind power decline. But green-originated electricity still costs more than natural gas. And the DWP must also upgrade transmission lines, power poles and transformers that have been deteriorating since the 1980s.

A skeptical City Council has given Nahai just 60 days to prove his proposed 9 percent hike is really needed. “I really hope we can avoid a fight on this,” Nahai said in a recent interview in his 15th-floor corner office in the DWP’s landmark John Ferraro Operations Building downtown. But many believe that a fight is inevitable.

City Council President Eric Garcetti noted that Nahai has inherited a broad DWP credibility gap: After promising no outages last year, for instance, DWP had major blackouts during a relatively cool summer.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ increasingly powerful Neighborhood Councils seem dead set against any rate hikes, whatsoever.

The DWP has been paying lip service to green power for decades, though most of the utility’s prior efforts have fallen short. But these days, failure is no longer an option.

The bill known as AB 32, passed in 2006, means, in Nahai’s words, that the “DWP not just should, but must” turn green. It mandates that “the state’s global warming emissions be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.”

California is by itself the world’s 12th largest source of carbon dioxide, and the DWP is one of the state’s large CO2 emitters. To meet the 2020 deadline, it has to bring major improvements on line within two years to begin compliance.

Nahai said: “As general manager, I will have no choice but to make the utility comply.” In addition, on the water supply front, DWP must seek out new local water sources, as court decisions reduce the amount of water allowed from outside the region.

For his part, Garcetti sees this as a historic change: “The first [DWP] revolution was the creation of the utility 100 years ago; that made this city possible. Now the second great rebuilding will be to make this utility green.”

To environmentalists, this would be the ultimate goal. Veteran environmental activist, author and former water and power commissioner Dorothy Green said Nahai “is just what they needed.” She recalled that the DWP drifted under enfeebled revolving-door leadership during the mayoralty of James Hahn. This drift climaxed in the billing scandals involving the Fleischman-Hillard public relations firm that resulted in criminal convictions of two PR executives.

In 2005, Villaraigosa appointed Nahai, then president of the state Water Resource Board, to the Water and Power Commission. There, along with former longtime MTA board member Nick Patsaouras (who just replaced Nahai as Water and Power Commission president), he hammered away at what the pair increasingly saw as egregious waste and inefficiency.

Their one-two style contrasted Patsaouras’ brusque bad-cop toughness with Nahai’s lawyerly polish. The two ultimately formed an unprecedented DWP contract oversight committee that shook up its shaky contracting procedures, and the Water and Power Commission’s long decades of benign neglect were obviously over. Nahai regards his two years on the board as boot camp for his DWP general managership.

“I had never even met Nick before, but we got along wonderfully from the beginning,” he said. “It was a great education, working right there in the guts of the department for two years.” In return, Patsaouras recalled, “He was a terrific partner — it was the greatest thing to have David with me on the board.”

Patsaouras, a trained electrical engineer, said he’d be happy to counsel Nahai on any technical problems he might face as general manager.

‘Generation Next’ powow at Professional Leaders Project parley

Generation Next

By the end of the Professional Leaders Project gathering in Santa Monica, I walked away with three things: a stack of business cards, some good stories and a condom from in a package that featured an Israeli flag on the front and an off-color, yet highly creative tagline we can’t print here.

These may be the usual accoutrement, left over from a weekend of Jewish networking, yet with respect to this conference being a progressive think tank, the cards are unusually fancy:

There’s Ariel Beery, the 20-something editor and publisher of a cutting-edge mag on Jewish life (the current cover of PresenTense features three unmistakably ethnic Jews under a headline that reads, “Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish”). Then there was Lindsay Litowitz, who is independently seeking funds tofinance a documentary film project, called “Four Corners,” on Jewishcommunities around the world. Others there were producers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit executives, artists and budding religious leaders.

The invitation-only crowd was comprised of significant young Jewish professionals and volunteers — most were hip and well dressed, all shared “smart and successful” and were qualitatively labeled “talent.” And there you have the traits of the nation’s future Jewish leadership.

Well-funded and well-organized PLP flew in these rising stars for three days of Jewish learning, networking and highfalutin keynote speakers. Israeli-born Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who commands up to $20,000 for a single speaking engagement, delivered a spiel on positive psychology that didn’t quite live up to my expectations, so I hope PLP got his nonprofit rate.

During my in-and-out stint, I caught Dov Rosenblatt performing with his band, Blue Fringe. Afterwards, I mistakenly offered a handshake to Chasidic rapper Y-Love (a.k.a. Yitz Jordan), who abruptly flung his sweaty beret over his palms before he would touch me. The much-anticipated conclusion, “Michael Steinhardt Uncensored” was a bust when he fell ill, but the ever-eloquent and engaging Rabbi Naomi Levy stepped in and delivered an empowering message on good leadership.

Despite the lack of an overriding message articulated over the course of the conference, there was a sense of hopefulness. The Jewish future is in ready hands, able hands — and maybe next time, they’ll have a concrete objective of what to do with those hands.

Jane Usher is no plain Jane. She’s an active environmentalist, attorney and president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Flanked by eco-Hollywood and go-green Angelenos, she was honored by TreePeople at their annual gala fundraiser, “An Evening Under the Harvest Moon,” which raked in half-a-mil for L.A.’s urban forest. Since a group of teenagers started the organization in the 1970s, more than 2 million trees have been planted in our beloved, angelic city.

What a pair! Of sisters, that is. Although the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s breast cancer fundraising luncheon makes clear reference to a woman’s most salient body part, the perky set at this event was actress Joely Fisher and her sister, Trisha Leigh Fisher, who presented Joley, the smokin’ star of FOX’s “Til Death,” with the Angel Award for her brazier-like support of breast cancer research.

Comedic actor and ubiquitous philanthropist Brad Garrett also attended the fete, as he and Joely are slated to emcee the Zimmer Children’s Museum’s seventh annual Discovery Award Dinner on Nov. 8.

Carry On! Venice community gets an eruv approved

The Shul on the Beach, formally known as the Pacific Jewish Center (PJC), has crowned four years of negotiations to install an eruv along the Pacific shoreline and inland area.

The historic Orthodox congregation in Venice finally won approval from the California Coastal Commission to create an unbroken symbolic border to allow observant families to carry basic necessities and push baby strollers beyond the confines of the home on the Sabbath.

An eruv (literally “blending” in Hebrew), which generally consists of a strong fishing line strung between telephone poles, has frequently triggered bitter neighborhood disputes, pitting American Orthodox Jews against environmentalists, nearby homeowners and, occasionally, secular Jews.

The PJC case was particularly sensitive, because for the first time it involved California coastal land and the fishing lines would run near the nesting area of the protected least tern. Mark Massara, a Sierra Club official, objected at one hearing: “This is really nuts. To the extent that we’re allowing public property to be used for religious purposes, it is very troublesome.”

However, after the shul agreed to place metallic streamers on the fishing line near the nesting area to warn off birds, the commission gave the go-ahead.Rabbi Meyer May, president of the Rabbinical Council of California, said that the eruv “is nondescript and has zero impact on the neighborhood. All it does is to allow observant Jews to live in an area, and if that bothers some people, so be it.”

May said that an eruv must meet quite complex religious and technical standards approved by inspectors from his organization.

As in the case of existing eruvim in the Westside and San Fernando Valley areas, top rabbinical experts from Toronto will supervise the Venice-area installation.According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, rabbinical authorities have defined three types of eruvim, all intended to promote the sanctity of the Sabbath. The fishing line enclosure is known as eruv tehunim, or the eruv of boundaries.

Some 60 years ago, the Venice Beach area was home to an elderly but thriving, Miami Beach-type Jewish community, but over time the growth of air-conditioned suburbs depleted the ranks of such residents.

During the past couple of decades, a new wave of young couples have joined the shul, led by Rabbi Benjamin Geiger, which now has a core of some 50 families, with many more expected after the eruv is up.

The 4 miles of fishing lines will joined to the existing 8-mile patchwork of chain-link fences and walls along freeways. When completed, after the shul has raised the money and let construction bids, the eruv will encompass a square-shaped area running from Marina del Rey north to the 10 Freeway, and from the Pacific coast east to the 405 Freeway.