A measure of suspicion

Blunders, and possible fraud, by PG&E campaign will cost SMUD

PG&E honchos warned SMUD ratepayers that any plan to annex parts of Yolo County would cost them dearly. Sure enough, a PG&E-backed ballot measure aimed at derailing the public-power proposal is turning into a costly headache for SMUD.

Pacific Gas & Electric responded to a Sacramento Municipal Utility District proposal to take over electricity service in Woodland, West Sacramento and Davis, by pushing an advisory ballot measure in Sacramento County. The measure would ask SMUD’s existing ratepayers to weigh in on the annexation plan—but wouldn’t be legally binding.

The measure needed 32,000 signatures to qualify for the June ballot in Sacramento County.

A PG&E-created group called the Coalition for Reliable and Affordable Electricity claimed to have gathered around 53,000 signatures, and submitted them to county election officials for verification.

But a sample taken by county election officials has turned out to be tainted with bad signatures.

In a letter to SMUD officials last week, Assistant Registrar of Voters Alice Jarboe explained that more than 30 percent of the 1,600 signatures checked out by her agency turned out to be invalid.

“We also suspect some instances of fraudulent signatures of voters on the petitions which will be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Fraud Division,” Jarboe wrote.

Jarboe wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of the possibly fraudulently obtained signatures, but SMUD legal counsel Arlen Orchard said he understands that “several [signatures] seem to be of deceased people.”

Even though it’s PG&E’s ballot measure, and even though PG&E hired the campaign consultants and bankrolled the signature-gathering effort, election law requires SMUD to foot the bill for the signature verification.

Because of the dubious signatures, the Sacramento County registrar now has to verify every single signature, or at least the 32,000 needed to qualify for the June election, plus a few thousand extra. That will cost SMUD about $1.50 per signature verified.

Jarboe said county workers also will have to put in a lot of overtime in order to verify all of the signatures by the March 10 deadline. The total bill could come to between $75,000 and $100,000.

The PG&E-backed coalition has agreed to pay the county’s overtime costs.

But if enough signatures aren’t verified by the March 10 deadline, the measure could be forced to a special election. In that case, SMUD would be on the hook for the full cost of that election, more than $2 million.

Political consultant Jeff Raimundo, who runs the coalition, said he takes the possibility of fraud seriously. “Any fraud is unacceptable and should be prosecuted if true.” But he said the problem signatures are only a small fraction of the total. “That’s why we turned in 53,000 signatures. There are always going to be some problems. In the end, we’re confident the measure will qualify,” Raimundo added.

The irony is that SMUD’s board of directors already pre-empted PG&E’s non-binding ballot initiative, agreeing to place a binding measure on the Sacramento County ballot in November. Voters in both Sacramento and Yolo counties will have to approve the annexation plan for it to go forward.

SMUD’s action makes the PG&E-backed measure, in effect, meaningless, said SMUD Board President Genevieve Shiroma, which is why SMUD asked PG&E to drop its ballot measure.

“We wrote them a letter asking them to cease and desist. They wrote back saying, ‘No, we have to respect the wishes of your 53,000 ratepayers’” who signed the petition.

“Some of whom, I suppose, are deceased or not registered to vote or live somewhere else,” Shiroma added. “This just takes the cake.”