DWP’s Top Shooter and his oversized eight balls at Ivanhoe Reservoir
David Nahai should be a more open guy. As general manager of the very powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he’s embraced a noble cause – forcing customers to cut back on their water use this summer. But he’s failing in basic leadership: He won’t step forward and show the people of Los Angeles whether he’s a good role model.
Nahai, a.k.a. The Water King, lives in a $4.6 million mansion in Benedict Canyon. It’s no architectural gem, particularly with the obtrusive three-car garage, but it’s comfortable enough: six bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a swimming pool on a third of an acre.
I’m not ordering him to downsize, but he does have a duty as a public servant to tell us how much of our precious resources he and his wife and three children consume in their 6,012-square-foot palace. And, more important, what they’re doing to conserve like he wants the rest of us to do. His practices could inspire us all.
Last month, I asked the Water King to disclose his water bill. He seemed amused at the time, but now he’s turned prickly and acts like I’m prying into deep family secrets. He welcomes my questions as much as he must like receiving orders from the mayor or DWP’s union boss about who to hire or fire at the influence-charged utility. My hunch is that he wants to avoid the embarrassment of telling the world that what he pays for water and electricity could feed and clothe a small family in Pacoima for a year.
My pursuit of his water bill led me to visit his house and ultimately to file a request under the California Public Records Act, a state law that gives agencies 10 days at the most to respond one way or another.
On Day 15 of my long wait for any word from Nahai’s office, I called a staff meeting here at L.A. Sniper headquarters to develop a strategy. It seemed time for a personal visit to the Water King to make sure he had a current calendar. I caught up with him in Silver Lake later that morning where he had gathered reporters and community members at Ivanhoe Reservoir to release 400,000 black plastic softball-sized balls to float on the surface of the water to keep light from interacting with chemicals and creating cancer-causing bromate.
It’s a delight hearing him talk about the science of water; he’s far less astute grasping the politics of water. I suspect that he’s in way over his head at DWP and is barely treading water. I mean, do you think the Water King ever would have hired Cindy Montanez as a special advisor at $12,500 a month without an order from the mayor? And it goes on and on.
Nahai’s a sharp guy who left his native Iran for boarding school in London. He’s got a degree from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and shouldn’t need a lecture from me on public records law. But that’s what our conversation turned into, as DWP crews and community members tossed the balls in the water. At one point, Councilman Tom LaBonge told us to get out of the way of TV crews filming the action.
I laid out the problem for the Water King: “I filed a public records request for your water and electric bills 15 days ago. I haven’t heard word one from your department.”
Water King: “You should talk to public affairs about it.”
Sniper: “I have. They haven’t returned my calls.”
Water King: “It’ll go through its…”
Sniper, interrupting: “You’re breaking the law. The public records act gives you 10 days at the most to respond to a request. The 10 days have gone by.
Water King: “I don’t know anything about it. That’s handled by public affairs and the City Attorney’s Office.”
Sniper: “Why don’t you simply release your water and power bill on your own?”
Water King: “As I said, you filed a public records request and it’ll go through its process.”
Sniper: “You’re telling the people of Los Angeles to conserve. Don’t they have a right to know how the guy who’s making that request of them handles water at his own home?”
Water King: “You filed a public records request.”
Sniper: “Come on, Mr. Nahai. It’s been more than 10 days. You’re a law-abiding guy. Why are you breaking the law when it comes to your water bill?
Water King: “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. You’re harassing me.”
Right after our testy exchange, the water king huddled with DWP’s public affairs director, a.k.a. Water Boy Joe Ramallo. Moments later, Water Boy was on his cellphone talking about the matter with someone.
He and I had this little go-around:
Water Boy: “ I got your message and I will respond to you.”
Water Boy: “I will respond to you.”
Sniper: “You guys are breaking the law. When will I get a response?”
Water Boy: “I will respond to you.”
By the end of the day, a nice guy named Bryan Woolf, a management assistant at DWP, called to say that the matter was being researched and that I would hear back in a day or so. He called again Tuesday morning to say that I would get a written response in the next day or two. Even Water Boy emailed me Tuesday afternoon to say I would be hearing a verdict on my request by the end of the week.
Over here at L.A. Sniper headquarters, I don’t take confrontations with Water King and Water Boy personally. In fact, I can’t help but think that is generally the way they treat the public. To test that theory, I told the Water King I would be filing a request for a year’s worth of all public-records requests, along with copies of the initial letters the DWP sent in response to the inquiring public. Said the Water King: “Do whatever you think is your legal rights to do.”
I take that as one of those coded messages that hostages inside a bank might make to someone who could help them escape. Yes, deep down the Water King wants me to help him turn around his troubled agency.
Yes, Water King, help is on the way.