PG&E’s candidates

Pub date October 24, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL We’ve seen plenty of allies of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. We’ve seen a few PG&E bagmen, PG&E shills, and PG&E fronts. But there’s never been anyone elected to the board in our 40 years who was actually a paid attorney for PG&E.
This year there’s at least one and possibly two candidates who have worked as PG&E lawyers — and that alone should disqualify them ever from holding public office in San Francisco. The most obvious and direct conflict involves Doug Chan, the former police commissioner who is seeking a seat from District 4. Documents on file with the California Public Utilities Commission show that Chan’s law firm, Chan, Doi, and Leal, has received more than $200,000 in fees from PG&E in just the past two years.
Chan won’t come to the phone to discuss what he did for the utility, won’t respond to questions posed through his campaign manager and press secretary, won’t return calls to his law firm, and thus won’t give the public any idea what sorts of conflicts of interest he’d have if he took office.
This is nothing new for Chan: back in 2002 he put his name on PG&E campaign material opposing public power and earned a spot in the Guardian’s Hall of Shame.
Then there’s Rob Black, who worked as an attorney for Nielsen Merksamer, the law firm that handled all of the dirty dealings for the anti-public-power campaign in 2002. Black worked with Jim Sutton, his former law professor and PG&E’s main legal operative, during that period but insists he did no work on anything related to PG&E or the campaign. That’s tough to believe.
All of this comes at a time when PG&E is going out of its way, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to buff up its image — and to fight the city’s modest but significant plans for public power.
As Steven T. Jones reports on page 16, the notorious utility is well aware that its future in San Francisco is shaky. The city is bidding to provide public electric power to the Hunters Point shipyard redevelopment project and preparing to provide public power to Treasure Island. There is a study in the works to look at developing tidal power. The supervisors are moving forward on Community Choice Aggregation, which will put the city directly in the business of selling retail electricity to customers (albeit through PG&E’s grid). And there’s talk brewing of a public power ballot initiative for next November.
PG&E president Thomas King met with Mayor Gavin Newsom this summer and sent him a nice, friendly letter afterward discussing all the ways the city and PG&E could work together.
But in fact, the utility is already opposing even the baby steps coming out of City Hall: PG&E has bid against San Francisco for rights to sell power to the shipyard, and that’s forced the city to cut prices and reduce the revenue it could have gained from Lennar Corp., the master developer. PG&E is trying to stop the city from selling power on Treasure Island and has financial ties to a private company that has rights to Golden Gate tidal power development until 2008. Meanwhile, the utility just hired the former secretary to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — a woman who sat in on every closed-session strategy meeting the panel held, including sessions dealing with litigation against PG&E.
In other words, PG&E is gearing up for all-out political warfare — and the mayor and supervisors need to start preparing too. From now on, people should see whatever PG&E does as hostile — and on every front the city needs to adopt an aggressive strategy to move forward toward eliminating the company’s private power monopoly.
For starters, it’s ridiculous that the city should have to fight PG&E for the right to sell power at the Hunters Point shipyard. The Redevelopment Agency should have made public power a part of the program from the start, and the supervisors should examine that plan immediately to see if it can be amended to require Lennar to buy power from San Francisco. Newsom needs to take to the bully pulpit and say that if PG&E gets this contract, nobody on the Redevelopment Agency Commission will ever be reappointed.
Meanwhile, when Chan and Black appear anywhere in public this election season, they need to be asked to fully disclose their ties with PG&E and outline their positions on public power.
And it’s time for the public power coalition to start meeting again, with the aim of crafting a ballot measure that will create a full-scale municipal system, perhaps as soon as November 2007. SFBG
PS PG&E already has one staunch ally on the board, Sean Elsbernd, a Newsom appointee who also worked in the late 1990s for the Nielsen firm. That’s three too many.
PPS If Newsom is really for public power, as he claims, then why is he pushing so hard for two PG&E call-up votes for the board? And why is he not publicly denouncing PG&E’s attempt to scuttle public power and lending his political capital to a new municipalization effort?
PPPS The SF Weekly’s Matt Smith last week all but endorsed Doug Chan — but made no mention of Chan’s PG&E ties. Did that somehow slip through Smith’s investigative reporting net?