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Los Angeles utility board approves 'customer bill of rights'

In the wake of a multimillion-dollar customer class-action lawsuit settlement, the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners approved what it said is the city's first ever "Customer Bill of Rights" that promises improved customer service or consumer credits for any failure to keep those vows.

For example, if a request to open a new residential account is not processed within one business day, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will waive the connection fee. And if LADWP 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, according to a Jan. 17 department press release.

The bill of rights is still a work in progress. With unanimous approval of an "initial version" of those rights, the commissioners invited comments from neighborhood councils and individuals over the next 90 days from which the board said it will consider further "refinements."

Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of the utility, said the rights should be standard business practices. While LADWP's pledge is a step forward, it will be nothing but paper without a major overhaul of the utility's bureaucracy and an independent ratepayer advocate to hold the department accountable, the consumer group said.

"These are common sense reforms that should be standard business practice and shouldn't need a board of commissioners' vote," Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said in the group's press release.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti directed utility General Manager David Wright to implement the bill of rights that was developed in consultation with the mayor's office. The document sets measurable performance standards and service level goals to meet customer expectations, according to a board presentation.

The bill of rights is one of Garcetti's reform efforts to improve LADWP's service. Voters shot down Garcetti-backed Measure RRR in November 2016 that was aimed at giving the department more autonomy, including giving the utility board authority to sign contracts without the City Council's approval, according to a Nov. 9, 2016, report by The Los Angeles Times. Unions opposed the initiative because it would have allowed the department to hire employees without going through the city's civil service process.

The department has long had an image problem. It reached an estimated $67.5 million settlement of class-action litigation in response to a faulty utility billing system that resulted in overcharges to thousands of customers. The bill of rights includes the department's promise such a fiasco will not be repeated. In July 2016 a J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey rated LADWP at the bottom of a group of 13 large utilities in the West.

"The Customer Bill of Rights reaffirms our commitment to our customers to provide excellent customer service through reliable water and power service and accurate and timely billing," Wright said in the press release.

While the bill of rights contains a number of windy pronouncements such as promising to serve customers with "courtesy, honesty, empathy and respect," there are some specifics such as commitments to keep customers waiting no more than three minutes "on average" on phone calls and addressing account questions via email within 24 hours. The utility promises to send 95% of bills "on average" within three business days of meter reads and to automatically review bills that exceed three times a customer's average historic use. Customers will get $25 credits if their bills are inaccurate.

Also, the department promises to repair or replace defective meters within 90 days of discovery or reporting. New residential customers will begin receiving service within one business day or the connection fee will be waived. Solar interconnections for residential projects of 10 kW or less will be completed within 10 days of final inspection.