There’s a new Freeman in town

Howdy: Who’s that cowboy on the horizon, a heroic gunslinger figure summoned by California’s Sheriff-in-Chief Gray Davis to help save the day and stand up against the electricity desperados? Why, it’s the legendary S. David Freeman! If anyone can clean up this here state, it’s this cowboy hat-wearing energy maverick who once led the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District out of its problems.

Last week, Davis officially deputized Freeman as his “chief energy adviser,” formalizing and professionalizing an informal role Freeman had played for months, and causing Freeman to step down from a laudable run at the helm of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Experienced in the whos, watts and whys of energy issues, Freeman was the guy who San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in January urged Davis to name as the state’s energy czar, and to be given dictatorial powers.

It won’t be long now until Freeman drives the banditos out of the power plants and establishes order and harmony for the good townsfolk of California, or so the script goes. And just in time, too, considering the closing credits that could be rolling on Davis’ political career if this June begins the summer of blackouts and price spikes.

Yet the same press release that announced Freeman as chief adviser to the nation’s most powerful governor on the most important issue in recent years also seemed to narrow his “chief adviser” role to overseeing Davis’ “20/20” conservation program, a gimmicky little giveaway that Davis seems to think of as akin to an actual energy program.

What does Freeman say about all this? Actually, the once free-talking Freeman has been fairly mum and inaccessible in recent months—an affliction common among Davis appointees—refusing to return SN&R phone calls, outline his ideas for solving the problem or discuss his new boss’ approach.

Yet it wasn’t long ago that the freewheeling Freeman was forcefully and candidly criticizing the deregulated electricity system that Davis is trying to save, and calling for the governors’ biggest campaign contributors to pay for any bailouts, rather than the average taxpayer, Davis’ coffer-of-choice.

Why, just last summer, when the Legislature held hearings outlining the coming crisis, Freeman was sounding more Ché than CEO as he slammed the Big Business forces that got us into this mess, with the ever-subservient compliance of California’s elected leaders.

“If there is a need to raise [retail energy] prices, let the people who started this whole thing, the industrial customers, pay the higher rates,” Freeman told a joint Senate-Assembly committee hearing last August.

Freeman seemed to think that California has the right and obligation to stand up to the power generators who have been gouging California consumers, even though Davis’ people claim the state’s public power options are limited.

“California has enough authority to get a hold of this system,” Freeman declared. But the real question is: Does Freeman have enough authority to convince his new boss to get a hold of this system, especially if that means crossing Wall Street and his campaign contributors?

Green with envy: Bites is jealous of Tom Knudson. Every week, Bites has to crank out another column, sometimes battling through hangovers, powder skiing days, laziness and bad moods to prevent this from being a big white space.Yet Knudson, the Sacramento Bee’s infrequent writer of big packages of environmental stories, draws a fat paycheck without writing a word for months on end. Geez, just because the guy won a Pulitzer Prize for his early ’90s “Sierras in Peril” series, he gets to be a slacker? It ain’t fair.But the well-rested reporter returned to print this week with the “Environment, Inc.” package, slamming the country’s biggest environmental groups as greedy, self-serving, deceptive, manipulative and a whole bunch of other adjectives that he implied but never used.

Considering that “Sierras in Peril” was at least as much about Bee aggrandizement as saving the Sierras, it’s a little ironic to hear Knudson slamming the Sierra Club for doing the same thing.

But there’s no doubting the fact that Knudson is one of the Bee’s sole shining stars, or that Club Sierra and the other environment institutions have become fat and happy when they should be scrappy and discontent.