Delusions of Power

Is it smart to jump into the Bay Guardian's version of public power, without even studying whether it will save money?

Interviews with a score of public power experts and lawyers -- as well as a comprehensive investigation by the United States Department of the Interior a decade ago -- make it clear that the Raker Act does not require San Francisco to operate a citywide system of public power, and the city is not selling Hetch Hetchy electricity to private companies for resale.

These same public power professionals, who are not tied to private utility companies or San Francisco politics, say that the law and common sense dictate that a comprehensive feasibility study of costs and engineering realities should be done before a MUD, or any other form of public power, is put to the voters, or instituted in San Francisco.

Stu Wilson is the assistant executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association, which protects the interests of publicly owned utilities. He says the simplest option for municipalizing electricity in San Francisco is to do it through existing city departments and the Board of Supervisors, rather than creating a new government such as a MUD. He suggests that aggregation is a good first step toward expanding public power; a MUD is not needed to do that. He questions the prudence of putting the MUD on the ballot before studying it.

On Monday, Supervisor Gavin Newsom circulated a draft amendment to the city charter, meant for inclusion on the November ballot. Newsom's proposed amendment, compiled with help from the City Attorney's Office, would replace the city Public Utilities Commission with a Power and Water Authority that would have a board of directors composed of four elected and five appointed members. If approved by voters, the authority board would be expected to quickly commission a public power feasibility study. The authority would also be governed by the Sunshine Ordinance, according to the draft amendment, which was not expected to come before the Board of Supervisors for official action immediately.

Although cautioning that it would be difficult to do a meaningful study of municipalization while California's electricity crisis rages, the experts agree that, if a publicly owned power system is the goal, creating a MUD is not the only, or necessarily the best, way for San Francisco to achieve it. They note that a MUD will probably take many years to put in place and most likely be significantly more expensive and cumbersome than a municipal utility governed by the city's existing administrative structure, which already buys electricity in bulk on behalf of Hetch Hetchy's customers.

Not every San Franciscan, of course, acknowledges such expert views.

On a cold, rainy night in North Beach, a dozen neighbors gathered at a preschool to hear Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduce Neil Eisenberg, chairman of San Francisco's Local Agency Formation Commission. Peskin sprinkled his introduction with some not-too-subtle caveats. "The MUD may not be the best possible vehicle for public power," he said. "It has problems with legal viability, cost, and how long it will take to put in place." He talked briefly about alternatives, before yielding the floor to the LAFCO chairman.

Eisenberg rose slowly. "We can no longer afford to debate this issue," he said. "Aaron's 'alternatives' are a pipe dream."

During the next few minutes, Eisenberg told the audience that the public power movement intends to seize all of PG&E's San Francisco system. He said that Hetch Hetchy's turbines can meet most of San Francisco's electrical demand; that rates will fall 10 percent under an electric system run by a municipal utility district; and that a MUD will make hundreds of millions in profits each year. He provided no documentary evidence for these assertions.

Before he walked back into the rain, he accused City Attorney Louise Renne of failing to enforce the Raker Act, even though "the Bay Guardian has raised this issue every week for 32 years."

Indeed, the Guardianhas repeatedly accused Renne of falling down on the Raker Act job, and repeatedly called for her to issue an opinion on whether the city is violating the act. In February, Renne sent a letter to city supervisors, informing them that, in her opinion, San Francisco is in compliance with the Raker Act.

The Guardian subsequently wrote a story about the letter. The story had a headline that called Renne's opinion "bogus."

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