SFPUC shuffle

Pub date August 6, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is arguably the city’s most important commission. It provides water to 1.6 million customers in three Bay Area counties and handles sewage treatment and municipal power for San Francisco. But right now, it lacks a governing body.

Until recently there were no minimum job requirements for its five commissioners, who are all appointees. The only way the Board of Supervisors could block the mayor’s picks for these all-important posts was through a two-thirds vote (that requires eight supervisors) made within 30 days of the selection.

That changed June 3 when voters approved Proposition E. The board placed this legislation on the ballot in response to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s "without cause" firing of SFPUC former General Manager Susan Leal last year, and his reappointment this spring of Commissioner Dick Sklar, a former SFPUC general manager whose anti–public power tirades and rudeness to SFPUC staff was at odds with the goals and values of the board’s majority.

Prop. E’s passage required that the current SFPUC be disbanded by Aug. 1, set minimum qualifications for future nominees, and stipulated that new commissioners cannot take office until at least six supervisors confirm the mayor’s picks.

Newsom responded by renominating Sklar, along with two other incumbents—former PUC President Ann Moller Caen, and F.X. Crowley, who works for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Newsom also nominated two newcomers — Nora Vargas, executive director of the Latino Affairs Forum, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group, and Jell-O heiress Francesca Vietor, director of the city’s Department of the Environment from 1999 to 2001.

Kicked to the curb in this preliminary shuffle was David Hochschild, a solar advocate who steered the SFPUC away from building peaker plants and toward retrofitting the aging Mirant power plant. Also ousted was E. Dennis Normandy, whom Mayor Frank Jordan appointed in 1994.

On July 29, the board unanimously approved Caen and Crowley, and seemed inclined to favor Vietor, though she has yet to appear before them to answer questions.

But they rejected Vargas after Sups. Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, and Bevan Dufty expressed misgivings about her lack of experience with local politics and the SFPUC, not to mention concerns about the $150,000 worth of community grants PG&E gave to Vargas’ Latino Issues Forum between 2004 and 2006.

And Sklar withdrew his nomination before the board could vote on it, apparently aware that the seven votes against his nomination last time meant he was destined to fall short of the new requirement.

These initial changes have led Leal to believe that Prop. E is already having the desired effect. "The rules before meant that the supervisors had 30 days to come up with eight votes, and that’s a very tough thing to do," Leal told the Guardian. "The fact that Dick Sklar had to get six votes, when he barely got four votes in February, is why he withdrew his name. And if you look at the way the supervisors handled the process last time around, this time they seem more vested in it."

Newsom has not yet forwarded any more picks to the Board, so the makeup of the body that will govern the SFPUC until August 2012 is still undecided. But it’s likely that the first matter of business for the new SFPUC will be responding to board recommendations that are sure to flow from an August hearing into CH2M Hill’s study on the feasibility of retrofitting Mirant’s Potrero units 4, 5, and 6.

Leal believes the retrofit plan is "sketchy at best."

"I think that trying to retrofit a 1973 plant is like one former PUC commissioner thinking you can repair the 50-year-old digesters out at the southeast wastewater treatment plant," Leal told the Guardian, referring to Sklar’s equally unpopular attempt to block a costly but necessary rebuild of the SFPUC’s sewage digesters.

"To me, this is Mirant and PG&E still deciding whether there will be something polluting in the air," Leal added.

On July 22, at its last meeting before being disbanded, the Sklar-led SFPUC voted to rescind its former plan to build a new peaker power plant in the city’s southeast sector, and to instead pursue the Mirant retrofit.

Sup. Bevan Dufty notes that a retrofit of this kind "hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world." Board President Aaron Peskin observes that, "unlike the peaker plan, which was subjected to thousands of pages of analysis, the retrofit plan was cooked up behind closed doors with no public hearings."

Noting that Mirant only needs a building permit to keep operating at the site, Peskin says that is why he joined Sups. Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, and Dufty in introducing legislation to require conditional use permits of future power plants.

"ATM machines, bakeries, and restaurants need conditional uses, so why not power plants?" Peskin said.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi believes the peakers and retrofit are competing as the lesser of two evils, which is one reason why he and Ammiano wrote the fall ballot measure called the Clean Energy Act, which would create ambitious goals for renewable power. Mirkarimi told us, "There needs to be a robust campaign for a third plan that combines a transmission-only mandate and a strong renewable energy mechanism that compensates for the Mirant shutdown."