PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive

Pub date December 21, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen City

GREEN CITY On a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. conference call in late October, with top PG&E executives and analysts from Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and other prominent investment firms on the line, PG&E president Chris Johns explained how a company-sponsored ballot initiative could save millions of dollars for the utility.

“We have faced potential takeovers multiple times over the last several years and we have had to expend significant resources to oppose these efforts,” Johns explained, referring to attempts by public agencies to set up independent electricity programs that threaten to compete with PG&E. “The success of this initiative, if placed on the ballot, could significantly reduce the need for taxpayers and utilities to oppose these local government takeover attempts.”

His comments appeared in a transcript from an earnings call posted on a financial Web site called When pressed by an analyst about how PG&E had come up with the idea, company CEO Peter Darbee chimed in. “What occurred to us was we were repeatedly faced with this, and we were spending significant amounts of money year after year,” Darbee said, according to the transcript. “So we asked ourselves: what would be something that could discourage this over the longer term?”

What surfaced was a proposal for a statewide ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote at the ballot before any local government could develop its own electricity program. With such a high hurdle in place, efforts to move forward with publicly-owned power programs would essentially come to a standstill. But with San Francisco’s own stab at it expected to get underway long before the proposed initiative is placed on the ballot, PG&E is back to its default tactic of pouring millions into an opposition campaign.

San Francisco’s community choice aggregation (CCA) initiative, called CleanPowerSF, took a leap forward last month when a request for proposals (RFPs) went out to potential electricity service providers. The program aims to provide 51 percent renewable electricity by 2017, a meaningful step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But on the heels of this milestone, a wave of mailers bearing PG&E’s name in fine print crashed into San Francisco homes and businesses, screaming “Business Beware” in 1.5-inch type and proclaiming CleanPowerSF to be a “costly energy scheme.” The mailer cites a city controller’s report projecting that customer bills could be 24 percent higher under CCA.

But the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), which is working in partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to craft the emerging power program, responded in a press statement that this claim is misleading, since a fee structure has not yet been nailed down. While the controller’s report also noted that it was too early to say just what the pricing structure would be, it’s been a primary goal of the city’s CCA all along to offer customer billing rates that meet or beat PG&E prices.

Meanwhile, the city appears ready to fight back — and questions have already been raised about whether it was legal to distribute the attack mailer. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs LAFCo, announced at the Dec. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting that he was requesting that the city attorney examine whether PG&E had violated state law by distributing the mailer. According to the state law that laid the groundwork for CCAs to exist, investor-owned utilities are required to “cooperate fully” with the public power efforts of cities. “PG&E has blanketed this city … with mailers that distort and misrepresent what CCA is doing,” Mirkarimi said. “I believe this is a potential violation of California Public Utility Commission law.”

Several days before Mirkarimi’s announcement, the Guardian received confirmation from City Attorney Dennis Herrera that his office is looking into the matter.

The mailer included a link to the Web site, launched by an entity called the “Coalition for Reliable and Affordable Electricity.” A call to Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher, a Sacramento public-relations firm that has worked with PG&E in the past, revealed that this coalition is one of the firm’s clients, and that the person handling that client is Bob Pence. The proponent listed on the statewide ballot initiative is Robert Lee Pence — evidently the same person. The Guardian left a message for Pence inquiring who, besides PG&E, the coalition members are (the mailer claims there are 50,000), but he did not return the call. Multiple calls to PG&E were not returned either.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has received a handful of anecdotal reports that when clipboard-wielding signature gatherers were out on the streets circulating a petition in support of the PG&E-backed ballot initiative, people were fed some fishy stories about what the proposed constitutional amendment would actually do.

A voter who lives in Bakersfield contacted the Guardian to say she’d signed the petition because she was told that the ballot initiative would limit PG&E expansion — but she later did some research and found that PG&E was the primary force behind it, so she called the Registrar of Voters to have her name struck from the list.

Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network told the Guardian that he’d also been misinformed. But as someone familiar with the issue, he knew better. “I ran across signature gatherers in Emeryville. They told me that if I signed the petition, I’d be supporting a two-thirds majority vote to raise PG&E rates,” Toney said. “I said, ‘Well that’s interesting. The language here doesn’t say PG&E at all.

John Srebalus of Pasadena wrote in an e-mail that he was also misled by a signature gatherer. After he signed a petition to legalize marijuana, he said the woman with the clipboard flipped a few pages and asked him to sign again, as if in duplicate. But there was a rubber band securing the top half of this second page, hiding the text. When he peeled it back, he found that it was actually PG&E’s ballot initiative, which he had already refused to sign once before.

According to a source familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named, the petition was a particularly hard sell for signature gatherers, many of whom stake their entire livelihoods on earning less than $2 per signature. According to this individual, the erratic sales pitches caught on like wildfire because without a compelling hook, it was nearly impossible to convince random passersby to support something that came off as convoluted and wonky. This person said PG&E became alarmed when it caught wind of all the distorted representations and tried to put a stop to them.

Campaign spokesperson Greg Larsen told the Guardian he hadn’t heard anything about that, but he did emphasize the importance of the signed document, as opposed to the signature gatherers’ pitch. “The hope is that you read what you’re signing,” he said. “That’s really what the issue is — it’s what’s on this piece of paper.” Larsen added that the campaign had submitted 1.1 million signatures, “far in excess of the number of required certified signatures” to have the initiative placed on the ballot.