On November 6, San
Francisco voters will vote on two initiatives that may change the
way the city provides public utilities. The Call asked both the
supporters and the critics of the measures for a description of
their position. The opponents offered no response; their arguments
can be found at www.no3billionbill.com.
The proponents have provided the following statement:
Public power for San Francisco?
Thanks to the hard work of scores of volunteers
and the fact that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors now has a
progressive majority, retail consumers in San Francisco and Brisbane
have their best chance ever to take control of their energy future.
Two initiatives on the November 6 ballot — San
Francisco–Brisbane Measure I and San Francisco Proposition F —
would create public utilities that could provide inexpensive,
reliable distribution of electricity. San Francisco Propositions B
and H would enable the city to issue revenue bonds for
Look at the havoc that the private sector, aided
by Gov. Gray Davis, has wreaked on California this year and at what
will happen to much of the state after next February, when
electricity rate caps will expire, and it’s not hard to see why a
poll commissioned a few months ago by the San Francisco Chamber of
Commerce showed that Measure I, to form a San Francisco–Brisbane
Municipal Utility District (SFBMUD), was favored by 70 percent of
However, proponents of Measure I and Proposition
F, to create a San Francisco Municipal Water and Power Agency (MWAPA),
aren’t taking victory for granted. PG&E has hired three
high-powered advertising and public-relations firms to orchestrate
the opponents’ campaign, and it’s getting millions of dollars in
support from the likes of Southwestern Bell Corporation and
Even before these initiatives went on the ballot,
PG&E spent more than $200,000 to fight them.
And where are all these millions coming from? Us,
Moreover, the opponents are waging a scare
campaign based purely on speculation. The proponents are grounding
their arguments in the facts. Let’s review:
The rate caps, mandated in the state’s 1996
energy-deregulation bill, expire when utility companies pay off
their debts but no later than next February 28. San Diego Gas and
Electric retired its debt early this year and its retail customers
saw their rates rocket by as much as 300 percent in just a few
months. They’re so angry that a MUD campaign is rapidly gaining
steam in San Diego, where most voters are conservative.
The San Diego episode prompted this admonition
last July: “If present trends continue, the train wreck is headed
our way.” It’s not just the message that’s significant; it’s
also the source — Dan Richard, PG&E’s senior vice president
of government and regulatory relations.
When rolling blackouts socked much of California
early last summer, Los Angeles and Sacramento were unaffected. As
public-power cities, they’ve been able to become energy
self-sufficient. In fact, the L.A. Department of Water and Power
sold surplus power to other California communities.
Sacramento MUD’s success stems partly from a
solar-sourcing system that has drawn nationwide praise. There’s
more to the story: SMUD went solar to replace energy production lost
by the shutdown of its Rancho Seco nuclear-power plant, in response
to public pressure.
That underscores another reason for public power.
MUDs are governed by citizen-elected boards of directors. And while
it’s true that SFBMUD would not have to comply with San Francisco’s
Sunshine Ordinance, all California MUDs must obey state
open-meetings and public-records laws.
If Proposition F passes, MWAPA’s board also
would be voter-elected and that agency would be subject to the city’s
By contrast, local and state sunshine laws don’t
affect PG&E; you can’t vote in its board elections unless you
own company stock; and its directors meet in private.
Opponents claim also that SFBMUD would use eminent
domain to seize and operate myriad utility services — electricity,
natural gas, trash pick-up, cable TV, and telecommunications — at
a cost of up to $3.36 billion, which would be funded through
increased rates and property taxes.
First, they don’t itemize the amount or cite a
data source. They just expect voters to take their word for it.
Furthermore, PG&E Company’s bankruptcy invalidates any price
estimate that the opponents want to make for the electricity and
natural-gas infrastructures; those determinations rest with the
Even the blatantly pro-PG&E study that the
Economic & Technical Analysis Group (ETAG) did for the city in
1997 concluded that shifting power distribution to the public sector
would save consumers about 5 percent.
Second, utility services could just as easily be
merged in the private sector; there are reports, for instance, that
AT&T might sell its cable-TV service to AOL–Time Warner. What’s
to prevent AOLTW from selling telecommunications or energy as well?
What’s to stop Southwestern Bell from acquiring PG&E Company,
which PG&E Corporation has talked about spinning off?
Electricity, natural gas, sanitation, local phone
service, and cable TV are already monopoly enterprises. The prospect
of their ownerships consolidating is truly cause for alarm, and we
shouldn’t expect antitrust regulators to prevent it.
Third, neither of California’s electricity MUDs
— Sacramento and Lassen County — levies a property tax, and both
charge lower rates than PG&E, according to data from the
Fourth, the pro-public-power campaign is focusing
only on local distribution of electricity. SFBMUD could certainly
provide other utility services — or provide no utility services.
So you need to get to know the SFBMUD board
candidates, as well as the ballot initiatives; vote for those
directors whose views make the most sense to you.
We also need to elect a city attorney who will
enforce the Raker Act, the 1913 federal law that let San Francisco
build O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley on condition
that the city provide power to retail customers at the lowest
Finally, opponents claim SFBMUD would be another
bureaucracy. Recall, please, the Vallejo woman who went 10 months
without receiving a gas bill, then discovered the cost of heating
her pool during that period was $18,000. Recall, please, the recent
Bay Guardian story about local start-up businesses that lost tens of
thousands of dollars in revenues while waiting several months for
PG&E to turn their power on.
You’re afraid of a bureaucracy? You’re already
saddled with one: PG&E.
It’s time to take back the power. Passing
Measure I, and Propositions B, F, and H on November 6 will move us
in that direction.
Ross Mirkarimi is
director of the solar/public-power campaign. For additional
information, visit www.publicpowernow.org