July 17, 2002

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Public power wins one

SUP. AARON Peskin made a rather dramatic – and telling – statement during Monday night's Board of Supervisors debate about a public power charter amendment. "I'm voting against something with which I fundamentally agree," he said.

Peskin was explaining his decision to vote against giving a new power agency the authority to issue revenue bonds to take over Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s facilities in the city. His argument: that power would be too controversial and would cause the measure to lose. Better to wait, he suggested, and bring the issue back in a year or two.

Sup. Matt Gonzalez had a simple answer: Last year several board members got agitated about the state of the Building Inspection Commission and vowed to do something later to change it. But nothing ever happened. "We're still waiting," he said.

The remarkable debate illuminated a fundamental disconnect in how board president Tom Ammiano and some of his allies were addressing the city's energy future. They all support public ownership of the entire PG&E system, they said – they just don't want to move on it now.

That's a sign that some of the supervisors who won election as reformers last year were too quick to compromise with downtown groups like San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) instead of showing leadership on an issue that ought to pit every public-spirited person in San Francisco against PG&E.

Gonzalez deserves immense credit for pushing the issue of grid acquisition and the issue of ensuring that the new power-agency board is elected, not appointed. So do Sups. Gerardo Sandoval and Chris Daly, who backed him on both of the key issues. As Rachel Brahinsky reports on page 20, thanks to Gonzalez, the supervisors voted to forward two versions of the public power measure for a final vote next week. Neither version is perfect, but either would be better than what Ammiano had initially placed on the table.

The supervisors will have two choices next week: a charter amendment that includes an 11-member district-elected board with no grid acquisition power, or a measure that includes an appointed board with grid-acquisition power. An elected board would be more likely to push for a full-scale public power plan and would be more accountable to the voters. But on balance, we lean toward accepting an appointed board and giving that board the ability to take over the PG&E grid. Only a city agency that controls the entire system will be able to offer the lowest rates and the most comprehensive clean-energy policy – and only grid acquisition will guarantee that the polluting plant at Hunters Point is shut down as quickly as possible and that the giant new plant Mirant Corp. wants to build at the foot of Potrero Hill is stopped.

The key point, however, is that one of the two measures should now be headed for the fall ballot, and the supervisors who have professed to support public power need to come together behind whichever measure wins final approval and put all necessary effort into passing it. To his credit, Ammiano has assured us he will do so; Peskin and Sups. Jake McGoldrick and Mark Leno, all of whom refused July 15 to support either grid acquisition or an elected board, need to make clear, unequivocal statements of support for the final measure and campaign for it this fall.

Sure, selling grid acquisition to some constituencies will be difficult. But that is exactly what district supervisors ought to be doing: making the case for issues like public power to their constituents, countering the lies that are certain to be coming from the likes of PG&E – in short, showing some leadership.

The historic campaign starts now.