Editorial: Mayor Ed Lee: Keeping City Hall safe for PG&E

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Mayoral candidates Dennis Herrera, John Avalos and Leland Yee blast Lee's pro-PG&E comments (in postscript)

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is the number one corporate criminal in San Francisco. The company's malfeasance caused the deaths of eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno last year. The National Transportation Safety Board, in a report issued August 30, denounced PG&E's "integrity management program without integrity" and blasted the company's efforts to "exploit weakness in a lax system of oversight."

That doesn't even address the fact that PG&E has been operating an illegal monopoly in San Francisco for more than 80 years, engaging in an ongoing criminal conspiracy to violate the federal Raker Act. Or the fact that the utility spent $50 million of ratepayer money on a ballot initiative aimed at eliminating consumer choice in the electricity market.

So why was Mayor Ed Lee out at a PG&E public relations event Sept. 1 praising the "great local corporation" as a "great company that gets it?"

Well, the mayor's campaign press spokesperson, Tony Winnicker, says that PG&E was at the event to donate $250,000 to a program for at-risk youth, and that the mayor was only recognizing that, for all its flaws, the utility "also [does] something good for our public schools and low-income kids."

That's not enough, and that's not acceptable — and the mayor should apologize to the residents of San Francisco, San Bruno and everyplace else in California where the giant corporation has done serious and lasting damage.

It's nice that PG&E gave a contribution to a program that helps Soma kids learn to read and to play baseball. We support the RBI program and its goals. Never mind that the $250,000 is about 0.005 percent of the money that the utility spent trying to block public power in California. Never mind that PG&E pays such a low franchise fee that it robs of city of millions of annual tax dollars that could fund programs like this one. It still sounds like a large sum, and to the nonprofit program at Bessie Charmichael School, it is.

But there's a reason PG&E gives money to community groups and programs like this all over town — it's a way to buy support and respect. Corporate largess of this sort is a relatively cheap public relations strategy — and for the mayor not to see that is embarrassing.

It's a particularly notable conflict of interest, too — Lee's top patron and biggest political supporter, Willie Brown (who knows a bit about corruption himself) has been on PG&E's payroll as a private attorney for the past several years, earning about $200,000 a year.

Most of the candidates for mayor have been taking a gentle approach to Lee, and that makes a certain amount of sense — in a ranked-choice voting environment, negative campaigning often backfires. But there's nothing inappropriate about saying that the mayor of San Francisco has damaged his own reputation and the reputation of the city by allowing himself to be used at a PR tool by PG&E. Remember: He didn't just show up and thank the utility for the money. He called PG&E a "great local corporation," which is, quite simply, false. This ought to become an issue in the race, and Lee should be forced to explain his position on public power, his ties to Brown and PG&E, his positon on  community choice aggregation, his willingness to kick  the PG&E-friendly  commissioners off the PUC and appoint credible public power advocates  and to put aside decades  of  City Hall malfeasance in the name of a small contribution.

P.S. As the Sept. 2 Examiner put it neatly in its headline, "Mayor, PG&E engage in baseball diplomacy, Utility donates to youth program in wake of NTSB criticism."
Amy Crawford's excellent heads-up  story noted that Lee "also heaped praise on PG&E, which announced a $250,000 loan to RBI "

Then she quoted Lee as saying without gulping or blushing, "Isn't  that a wonderful contribution from a great local corporation? They're a great company that gets it."

Crawford put the quote in the proper context: "PG&E"s generosity came just two days after the National Transportation Safety Board blamed it for a deadly San Bruno gas line explosion one year ago.  The blast and subsequent fire destroyed a neighborhood, killing eight."

As usual, PG&E downplayed the tragedy by calling it all just a "coincidence."  She quoted Joe Molica, the PG&E spokesman, as saying,  "We're really here to talk about kids." Crawford wrote that Molica declined to "discuss the damning criticism."  Three mayoral candiates promptly blasted Lee for his telling remarks. Three candidates for mayor promptly blasted Lee's pro-PG&E remarks.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera  said the next day  that  “Ed Lee’s lavish praise for PG&E as ‘a great corporation’ on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the San Bruno tragedy, just days after federal regulators blamed the utility for a ‘litany of failures’ that claimed eight lives, is unconscionable,” said Herrera. “It shows insensitivity to victims’ families, and poor judgment for allowing his office to be used as a corporate PR tool. No less troubling, it ignores the serious work my office and others have done to protect San Franciscans from PG&E’s negligence, to prevent further explosions like those in San Bruno last year and in Cupertino on Wednesday. The interim Mayor should reassess his laudatory view of PG&E, and apologize to San Bruno victims’ families.". http://herreraformayor.com/2011/09/herrera-criticizes-ed-lees-lavish-pra...

Sup. John Avalos also  said the next day  that  "Ed Lee called PG&E a “great corporation” yesterday–a great corporation who spent $50 million last year trying to pass a ballot measure that would ensure their monopoly in places like San Francisco instead of repairing and inspecting pipes like the one that caused this terrible destruction.  Now this “great” corporation wants its customers to foot the bills for its negligence and bad practices?  Ed Lee says that this corporation “gets it.”  PG&E seem to “get” that a symbolic donation to a charity at the height of their unpopularity might help their rate-payers forget the catastrophic results of their negligence and bad practices "  http://avalosformayor.org/2011/09/breaking-ed-lee-praises-pge-for-being-great-avalos-responds/s

State Sen. Leland Yee later  said that  "Obviously Ed Lee doesn't understand that words matter. Eight of my constituents died and dozens lost their homes a year ago, and that is why I passed legislation to help those affected families try rebuilding their lives and why I am now pushing legislation to hold PG&E accountable. Rather than praising PG&E, the interim mayor should be calling on the Governor to sign the numerous bills to force the private utility to do what they have failed to do for decades - proper technology, inspection, and safety."

And so Mayor  Lee has publicly demonstrated that he doesn't get it and that he is poised to wallow in the Willie Brown sleaze of keeping City Hall safe for PG&E and its allies. Let's keep the pressure on.  B3