The Los Angeles “Oligarchy” and the Governance of Water and Power Networks

Special Report: Public Action in Montreal and Los Angeles
The Making of a Municipal Utility Based on Market Principles (1902–1930)
By Fionn MacKillop


In a city where the social and political importance of business is paramount, water and then power were municipalized in the first decades of the twentieth century, with wide-ranging public support. The municipal department then proceeded to ensure universal access to these services, with great efficiency, contributing to the impressive growth of the City of Angels, where water and power provision are still under municipal control, despite recent challenges to this status.
Yet, this does not mean that municipal control, particularly of power, went without controversies and challenges, nor does it imply that a form of “municipal socialism” was introduced; in this article, we analyze how an original form of governance and funding of a municipal utility was crafted to accommodate powerful business interests, but also Progressive politicians and the rising technocracy in charge of municipal operations. Gradually, a balance was struck between differing agendas to ensure efficiency, as well as other social and political goals.
We examine in particular how and why municipal control took place from the turn of the century, and the importance of the business “oligarchy” in shaping the utility to serve its interests and reflect its ideology; we then see how other principles, already present from the onset, were progressively asserted and led to controversies around the municipal control of water and power, as well as its goals : simply enhancing business conditions, or serving wider policies and politics ? We conclude by focusing on the “hybrid” philosophy of the municipal utility, to underline its originality on the American scene and understand how it contributed to shape an “imperial” Los Angeles with its grandeur and flaws.

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