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Details, Details; Problem Is, It's Hard to Read in the Dark; PG&E Strikes Back

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
Details, Details

It may be that San Francisco Chronicle reporters are trying to add a little drama to otherwise dry policy stories. Or maybe they're just having trouble getting used to their new abacuses. We're looking for charitable ways to explain why the paper can't seem to get its numbers straight lately.

Take its April 12 edition, for example, which featured an A3 story with the headline "Energy Package Signed by Davis" and the subhead: "$850 billion designed to boost conservation." That would be a hell of a conservation program, but for one problem: According to Gov. Davis' press release, the figure is actually $850 million. The story overstated the program's spending by more than four-fifths of a trillion dollars.

Just for the record, $850 billion is more than the gross national products of all but the richest countries. It is also half the annual budget of the government of the United States of America, or 8.1 times the entire budget of California, which is $105 billion.

The blooper was not a typographical error: It was also repeated in the first sentence of the story and in a second headline when the story jumped to a back page. And it wasn't the only egregious mistake in the paper.

A story on page A21, written by Julian Guthrie, the Chron's education beat reporter, described the $500,000 in salary increases for San Francisco Unified School District administrators as "about 1 percent of the district's annual budget." Oops. According to the school district's Web site, the annual budget is $533 million. One percent of that is $5.33 million. The raises were, therefore, one-tenth of 1 percent, less than a thousandth of the budget.

Easy mistakes to make -- a decimal here or there. And we would like to be sympathetic. Which is why we're hoping Chronicle reporters didn't do their own taxes this year. -- Peter Byrne

Problem Is, It's Hard to Read in the Dark

San Francisco being the book-loving city it is, we habitually sneak glances at what people around town are reading -- especially in the cramped confines of the Muni Metro, where you often get pushed so close you get to read along. But for pure literary voyeurism, there's nothing like the Purchase Circles feature on, which allows you to track people's reading habits according to any number of criteria. You can find out the best sellers for an entire city (in San Francisco, they are Hiking Marin and Zagat Survey 2001) or even for a specific company. A company like, say, Pacific Gas and Electric. With all the stress there lately -- you know, the blackouts and bankruptcies and things -- we wondered last week what was on the reading lists of PG&E employees. The top books:

1) Leading Out Loud: The Authentic Speaker, the Credible Leader, by Terry Pearce

2) Combined-Cycle Gas & Steam Turbine Power Plants, by Rolf Kohelhofer, et al.

3) Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life, by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth H. Blanchard

4) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling

5) Harry Potter Schoolbooks: Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by J.K. Rowling

6) The Bear and the Dragon, by Tom Clancy

7) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

8) Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, by Robert T. Kiyosaki, with Sharon L. Lechter

9) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

10) The Beatles Anthology, by the Beatles, et al.

Who Moved My Cheese? we can understand, but what's with the Harry Potter stuff? A 1999 article in Time about the Harry Potter phenomenon explained it all: "One of the interesting things about Hogwarts in the Potter books is that it contains no technology at all. Light is provided by torches and heat by massive fireplaces. Who needs electricity when you have plenty of wizards and magic wands?" -- Mark Athitakis

PG&E Strikes Back

The attorney for a PG&E-funded organization called Coalition for Affordable Services claims that the San Francisco Ethics Commission is investigating the San Francisco Bay Guardian and its publisher, Bruce Brugmann, to determine whether or not they violated state laws by failing to disclose their financial and political control of a campaign committee called San Francisco Coalition for Lower Utility Bills. CLUB is campaigning to establish a municipal utility district in San Francisco in the November election, which would have the power to seize the city's electrical system from PG&E.

Attorney Jim Sutton, leader of the anti-MUD group, says he filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission -- and also with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission and the San Francisco District Attorney's Office -- last October. The thrust of PG&E's charges is that the alternative weekly and its publisher made loans and in-kind contributions of nearly $70,000 to CLUB, and that the organization violated state law by not disclosing Brugmann and his newspaper as the only "major donors" to the MUD ballot initiative. The Brugmann-controlled campaign committee, claim the complaints, "deliberately attempted to confuse the public ... by using multiple names to hide its actual identity."

State law prohibits agencies from confirming or denying the existence of ongoing probes. Brugmann wouldn't confirm whether he knew of an investigation. He did say, of Sutton's organization, "What else would you expect from a PG&E front group?" And he asserted that "the MUD is not a normal ballot initiative and is not subject to the state election code.

"But I'm not an expert," he said. -- Peter Byrne

About The Authors

Mark Athitakis


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