Wake up, City Hall – and get moving on CCA

Pub date October 6, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL San Francisco’s chance to create a semblance of public power, through community choice aggregation, faces a devastating threat from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — and the city needs to move with a sense of real urgency to get this program off the ground.

CCA would allow San Francisco to buy electric power in bulk and sell it to customers at a reduced cost. It wouldn’t create a true public-power system — PG&E would still own the transmission facilities. And while customers would see price breaks, the city wouldn’t make much money off the deal. But it would be a major step toward breaking PG&E’s illegal monopoly.

The giant private utility desperately wants to avoid that, but right now its options are limited: The state law that authorizes CCAs, written by then-state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), bars utilities from interfering with or trying to shoot down community attempts are creating the buying coops. So PG&E is paying to collect signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would mandate a two-thirds vote before any city, county, or public agency can attempt to create or expand a public-power utility.

We all know what the two-thirds vote requirement has done in Sacramento — it’s paralyzed the Legislature. The PG&E initiative would do the same thing, making it almost impossible for any community to get rid of the dirty, high-priced power the utility peddles.

It’s going to take a huge statewide effort to defeat that initiative, and San Francisco — the only city with a federal mandate for public power — ought to be leading the way. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has been pushing the issue, and the supervisors have passed a resolution opposing the measure. That’s a start, but city officials need to do a lot more. We suspect the initiative may violate Midgden’s law — by any reasonable standard, PG&E is interfering with the rights of local government here — and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is investigating the issue. He needs to move aggressively and quickly to determine whether the city has a legal case that could get the measure thrown off the ballot. If so, he needs to connect with city attorneys in other public-power cities and launch a full-scale legal assault.

But if it looks as if a legal strategy won’t fly. Herrera, Mayor Gavin Newsom, the city’s state Legislative delegation and every other elected official in San Francisco needs to be speaking out against the measure — and working to set up a statewide coalition that can raise money to defeat it. The measure can’t be fought just with a few press conferences and statements of support — every public-power city, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Santa Clara, needs to be on board, with a high-profile campaign committee and public officials across the state holding fundraisers and looking to build a war chest in the millions of dollars.

And in the meantime, San Francisco absolutely must be moving at full speed to get its own CCA measure passed, in place and under way before this initiative gets on the ballot. For several years now, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been dragging its feet on CCA, and General Manager Ed Harrington is hardly making it a top priority. That has to change, now. Mirkarimi, as chair of the board’s Local Agency Formation Commission, is pushing the PUC to get the process moving, and the mayor, who claims to support CCA, needs to direct Harrington to press forward as if there were a hard deadline of next spring for implementation. Because if the PG&E measure makes the spring 2010 ballot, and wins, San Francisco’s program will have to be fully under way — or it will be dead.

Other than Mirkarimi, who is trying to organize statewide opposition, nobody at City Hall seems to be taking this threat seriously. It’s time to wake up, folks — the future of public power, and all the benefits it could bring San Francisco, is on the line. *