Letters to the Editor

Letters from April 11, 2001

Power Grab

A little MUD slinging: Gee, thanks for doing a cover story on public power (Peter Byrne's "Delusions of Power," April 4). I've been writing about this issue now for almost 20 years, and none of the other news media in town have ever paid any attention. Glad to have you on board.

Like a lot of newcomers to this issue, you made a few mistakes. I'll stick to the big ones, and I'll start with the Raker Act, since it's one of my favorite topics of all time.

Peter Byrne talked to all sorts of people who claim to be experts, but he obviously didn't do much of his own research, because he missed the essential point: The Raker Act was all about public power. If it weren't for a requirement that San Francisco operate a public power agency, there would have been no Raker Act, and Congress would never have allowed the city to build a dam in Yosemite National Park.

To summarize briefly: In the early part of this century, the battle over who would control the nation's electric power system was a very big deal. A lot of people (including some influential political leaders) believed that private power companies were a huge threat to consumers and to democracy in general, and fought furiously to keep the generation and sale of electricity under public control (Rudolph and Ridley's Power Struggle: The 100 Years War Over Electricityis an excellent resource on this bit of almost-forgotten history).

The Raker Act was a compromise between environmentalists (who didn't want the dam) and public power advocates (who saw it as a way to ensure that private power companies -- specifically PG&E -- would never get control of the power market in San Francisco, the largest and fastest-growing city in Northern California).

The act itself is a long and complicated piece of legislation, and like a lot of complex bills written almost 90 years ago, the actual language is subject to plenty of interpretation (and misinterpretation). But the intent of Congress at the time is abundantly clear from the Congressional Record. The backers of the bill repeatedly said that they were willing to hand over a precious federal resource to San Francisco only on the condition that it be used to keep private power -- specifically, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. -- out of the key regional market.

That's exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court found in 1940. As Justice Hugo Black wrote, "Congress early intended to require -- as a condition of its grant -- sale and distribution of Hetch-Hetchy power exclusively by San Francisco and municipal agencies directly to consumers in the belief that consumers would thus be afforded power at cheap rates in competition with private power companies, particularly Pacific Gas & Electric Company." (The cite is U.S. v. San Francisco, 310 US 16. You could look it up: This information is all easily available on the Web. There are links at sfbg.com.)

Of course, as PG&E officials themselves admit, the company has fought (brilliantly) to obscure this history and to confuse the legal and political issues over the years, because preventing San Francisco from enforcing the Raker Act was (and perhaps still is) essential to the company's survival as a large and profitable utility. Byrne shouldn't feel too bad -- lots of other journalists have been caught up in this sophisticated web of lies.

But let's get back to the present. Rolling blackouts are turning California into a Third World country. Doesn't it make sense to look into public power as an alternative?

Which brings us to the MUD: For quite some time, a few hardy folks (including the publisher of the Bay Guardian, who is, and should be, proud of his efforts) have been working against all political odds to get San Francisco out from under PG&E's thumb. Every attempt to get anything from City Hall on this issue has been quickly and often brutally rebuffed. (That shouldn't surprise Peter Byrne, who knows how politics works in this town.) Finally, the public power crew decided last year to attempt to create a municipal utility district, which would be an independent agency, not under the control of the mayor -- and thus might have some prayer of breaking the PG&E political axis.

The MUD that Byrne and SF Weekly so fear would not instantly take over PG&E's system. Personally, I wish it would, since I've studied this issue at extraordinary length, and I'm utterly convinced that public power would lead to cheaper rates and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for city services. But that's not politically or legally feasible. In fact, there's no guarantee that the MUD would get San Francisco into the power business at all.

The prospect that terrifies you folks amounts to a group of five independently elected representatives conducting studies, holding public hearings, and maybe going through yet another election to ask voters to approve a plan, all of which might lead to the establishment of the public power agency that Congress wanted back in 1913 -- and the end of PG&E's high rates and rolling blackouts. Is that such a bad idea?

As for John Mecklin's lofty concerns about the Bay Guardian's ethics ("MUD in Your Eye," April 4), let me ask a simple question:

Does Mecklin really think that anyone who reads the Bay Guardian is confused about our role as active supporters of public power and participants in this campaign? He may be the only one in town who hasn't noticed, but just to put his mind at ease, let me make it clear, for the record: The Bay Guardian promotes public power, with every resource we have at our command. We've given money, ad space, and editorial support. If we could think of anything else that would help, we'd do it.

And what possible personal or financial benefit does Mecklin think that Bruce Brugmann is getting out of this crusade? Let's be serious: As SF Weekly just proved once again, the only thing you get for standing up to PG&E in this town is abuse.

Tim Redmond
Executive Editor
San Francisco Bay Guardian

Peter Byrne responds: As I wrote in my article, with the exception of employees of the Bay Guardian, I could find no one with significant knowledge of the Raker Act who believes that it requires San Francisco to provide citizens with electricity from a government-owned utility. By any reasonable reading of the act, according to the courts, two different Interior Department investigations, and many of the nation's top experts on electrical power -- many of whom support the notion of public power -- the legislation allows, but does not compel, San Francisco to create a public power system for city consumers. For 32 years, the Bay Guardian has claimed otherwise. For 32 years, the Guardian has been wrong.

John Mecklin responds: The Bay Guardian has repeatedly and fawningly reported on a MUD-supporting campaign committee known as CLUB (Coalition for Lower Utility Bills) without disclosing that CLUB is essentially a Guardiancreature. (From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2000, for example, the Guardian and its publisher, Bruce Brugmann, provided $67,200 of the $67,300 in campaign contributions and loans that CLUB collected.) Many San Franciscans know the Guardian supports public power; I doubt all that many knew, until we told them, that the Guardian basically invented a "grass-roots" organization to flog one of the paper's pet causes, and then -- in a truly novel violation of journalistic ethics -- pretended as if the organization were an expression of mass public will. I realize that Mr. Redmond sees no problem with this type of "created" news. I think that many another journalist would recognize it as propaganda.

Just to keep the record straight: I did not write in opposition to public power. I wrote that there should be a full feasibility study before voters decide whether to embark on municipalization of electric service, the cost of which could easily run into the billions of dollars. This seems like common sense to me; I do not understand why "progressives" continue to oppose full study of the matter.

A Whale of a Story

Sorry, but at the last minute we decided to make the article interesting: When a reporter involves himself deeply in the life of a community that is significantly affected by the issue on which he is reporting, there is a tendency to come back with a story that strongly reflects the opinions and beliefs in which he has immersed himself. It is an occupational hazard -- all the more so because it tends to make for a livelier and more involving reading experience than if the reporter attempted objectivity. Hence "Dying Breeds" by David Holthouse (March 28).

Nowhere in his [story on] the whale hunt of the Chukotka did Mr. Holthouse consider the simple question I posed to him when he contacted our office for information: If the bulk of gray whale meat in Chukotka is no longer going to Soviet-style fox farms -- which still consumed the equivalent of 50 gray whales a year as of 1997 -- then where is it going? Why are the Chukchi, with a birthrate that has declined 50 percent over the last 15 years, asking for an ever-higher "subsistence" quota when that quota was originally dictated by the commercial appetites of the fox farms, and the commercial element of the hunt is supposed to be all but extinct? Raising these questions would likely have involved raising such issues as international whale meat smuggling and the backing of aboriginal hunts by Japan's whaling industry to get around the global ban -- issues we mentioned to Mr. Holthouse, but which were clearly not part of the picture he wanted to paint.

We note that this article was the first in a series. We trust the Weeklywill make an effort to get something resembling balance into the remaining entries.

Andrew Christie
Information Director
Sea Shepherd International
Friday Harbor, Wash.

Blubber. That's a funny word, isn't it? Blubber. Oh, sorry, you were saying?: Your recent article lacked substantial information about gray whales. Did you even bother to consider the extinction of gray whales as you do the extinction of Siberian Eskimos? No. Did you consider the possibility of the Siberian Eskimos being a nomadic tribe according to nature's climate, food supply, and man's wanton destruction of this precious ecosystem? No.

\rIt's quite obvious that the poisoned whales are unwilling recipients in man's war against nature and her nonhuman inhabitants. So if the Chukotkas are most concerned with putting blubber on the table, perhaps they won't mind the cancer and other wonderful diseases on their plate. When you start digging your grave, be prepared to lie in it.

Banka Schneider
Mission District

Demonizing Dogs

No bad pets, only bad owners: In the media immediately after the mauling of Diane Whipple, reports were that pit bulls (old standby monsters) were involved ("Pet Peeve," Postscript, March 21). The backlash continues to harm innocent people and innocent dogs, which stand a very high chance of being killed for basically existing if they are turned in to animal control. We will be living through the trial of Noel and Knoller, as I am sure the media will give us a blow-by-blow account. I think second-degree murder is an appropriate charge because these attorneys are the ultimate in irresponsible dog ownership. On www. craigslist.org, people have posted to find new homes for their dogs because landlords are threatening eviction of people with pit bulls. The wrongful death suit against Noel and Knoller also names the owner of the apartment building as a defendant. Don't think that went unnoticed by the Bay Area property owners' associations. This hysteria is fed by ignorance. People who know nothing about dogs should not try to eradicate them, nor should people who know nothing about them own them.

Danielle Hyatt

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