Power failure

It took the Sacramento Municipal Utility District over 20 years to take control of the electric grid from Pacific Gas and Electric. Advocates for public power in Yolo County are having to take some comfort in that after a bitterly fought election saved PG&E’s electric monopoly on the west side of Sacramento river last week.

“The constitution gives people the right to choose their electricity provider,” said SMUD board member Susan Patterson. “A lot of people are interested in this. We made national news.” Even the New York Times followed the local power struggle, she noted.

The attempt to annex communities of West Sacramento, Davis and Woodland into SMUD’s service area (Measures H and I) came very close to passing in Yolo County. But PG&E pursued a divide-and-conquer campaign—pressuring the SMUD board of directors to put the measure on the ballot in Sacramento County (Measure L) as well. In Sacramento, a barrage of PG&E sponsored ads convinced voters that bringing their Yolo neighbors into the public-power fold would be too risky.

“In Davis, we’ve been talking to people about this for nine years,” said Dan Berman, a volunteer supporting Measures H and I in Yolo County and longtime advocate of public power. He argued that this was why the city of Davis voted so heavily in favor of SMUD. “When people understand it, when they understand public power, they’re for it,” Berman added.

But it was confusion and doubt that seemed to win the day for PG&E—helped along by a record-setting $11 million in campaign funds from the corporation.

PG&E’s no-holds-barred campaign spending and tactics may earn the company some unwelcome attention from the California government.

Several state lawmakers have called for legislative investigations into PG&E’s use of ratepayer-funded phone lines to spread anti-public-power phone messages to its customers.

And, the California secretary of state still is investigating suspected incidents of voter fraud related to an earlier ballot measure requiring SMUD to put all future expansion plans to a vote of its ratepayers. PG&E persuaded voters to pass that measure during the June primary election. Before the June election, county officials found that many of the signatures gathered by PG&E-sponsored political consultants belonged to people who weren’t registered to vote, or who were dead. Sacramento County’s assistant registrar of elections, Alice Jarboe, said such investigations can take a year or more.