Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

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?

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
Eighteen months ago, San Francisco's voters passed a measure to strengthen the city's Sunshine Ordinance, which requires that most city government meetings and records be open to the public. The proposition to amend the sunshine law had been endorsed by many in San Francisco's "progressive" political circles, and was almost frantically championed by the alternative weekly newspaper the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The paper not only wrote story upon story and editorial after editorial about the benefits of the Sunshine Ordinance changes; the Bay Guardian and its publisher, Bruce B. Brugmann, contributed tens of thousands of dollars toward passage of the initiative, much of it via free or discounted advertising space.

Not long thereafter, the Bay Guardian and others of like ideological bent began focusing their resources on another goal: the creation of a municipal utility district, or MUD, that would, among other things, have the power to seize San Francisco's electrical system from its owner, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and to create the publicly owned electric utility that has been, for 30 years, almost a holy grail for the Guardian.

As was the case with the Sunshine Ordinance proposition, the Bay Guardian has gone all out in support of the MUD, publishing dozens of news stories and opinion pieces even as the paper has donated tens of thousands of dollars in ad space to the political committee pushing the public power effort. In some ways, in fact, the sunshine and public power efforts are linked. In an editorial last June, the Bay Guardian claimed that the MUD would bring lower electric rates to San Francisco, "[a]nd none of this would be done in secret, since the MUD would be subject to the city's sunshine laws." Furthermore, the political committee created to support the Sunshine Ordinance proposition -- San Franciscans for Sunshine -- is being used to support public power, under the moniker San Franciscans for Sunshine aka Coalition for Lower Utility Bills, or CLUB.

The proponents of the public power MUD appear to be on a roll. Last August, the city's Board of Supervisors set up a Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to investigate whether it would be a good idea to ask the voters of San Francisco and Brisbane to create the MUD. The LAFCO decided it would. An election to create the district has been set for November.

In a meeting early last month, the five-member LAFCO board -- composed of four San Francisco supervisors with close ties to the Guardian, and a chairman who is running for city attorney this fall, also with Guardian backing -- made another important decision. The board voted unanimously to exempt itself from obeying San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance.

In the wake of the progressive sweep of the Board of Supervisors last fall, a vision of public power has been moving steadily forward. It's a vision that owes much to the Bay Guardian and its vitriolic, 32-year campaign against PG&E and its control of San Francisco's electric power franchise.

The five-member LAFCO board, which has already taken the steps needed to put the MUD on the November ballot, is chaired by Neil Eisenberg, a San Francisco attorney who announced his candidacy for city attorney in November after a Guardian editorial urged him to run for the post. The other commissioners -- Chris Daly, Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, and Tom Ammiano -- are city supervisors whom the Bay Guardian endorsed in last fall's election, after writing that politicians who did not support the MUD would be "marked for political extinction." According to a recent Guardian story, all four of these supervisors "pledged in writing to the Bay Guardian before they were elected that they would support the MUD."

As they push for formation of a municipal utility district that would supply San Francisco with electric power, the self-described progressives who control the LAFCO have engaged in some notably nonprogressive tactics in regard to open meetings, open records, and public contracting.

Also, MUD supporters -- including LAFCO commissioners and the Bay Guardian's news pages -- have repeatedly made arguments in favor of the district that fly in the face of known facts.

And perhaps most important, LAFCO board members have refused, in apparent violation of state law, to undertake a study that would show whether a MUD-controlled electric utility is financially feasible. A wide range of energy experts consider the necessity for a feasibility study to be a given before embarking on municipalization of electrical service.

For example, Frank Salas, chief of staff for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a publicly owned electric utility, says any city considering the creation of an electrical MUD "should do a comprehensive cost study before going to the voters for approval.

"The biggest thing you have to come up with is to show that it would cost the consumers less to buy out PG&E. It's got to be a study of fundamental questions, like market prices and infrastructure, so you will know how to pay for it, or if it's going to be reliable.

"It's a serious decision."

In a meeting early last month, attended by only a handful of onlookers, the board of the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission voted unanimously to avoid the stringent open records and open meetings dictates of the city's Sunshine Ordinance. The LAFCO board opted instead to operate under the Brown Act, a state law that the Bay Guardian has long railed is insufficient to guarantee open government here.

At the same meeting, the commissioners also agreed to use an "informal" process of choosing the winners of $500,000 of contracts the LAFCO will soon let, meaning the LAFCO will not advertise "Requests for Proposals" as city and state agencies do, in hopes of ensuring that all who are qualified to compete for government work have the chance to apply. Rather, the commissioners will hire consultants from lists that the LAFCO itself draws up. In the end, the consultants who are hired may also be exempted, at the discretion of the chairman, from complying with financial disclosure requirements set out in the state's Conflict of Interest Code.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"