by Amanda Witherell
From left, Juliet Ellis with Manuel Pastor from UC Santa Cruz and Lori Reese-Brown with the city of Richmond
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has had two empty seats for months, but Mayor Gavin Newsom has finally made another appointment to the body that oversees the city’s water and power infrastructures. Juliet Ellis has been offered the “advocacy” seat on the five-member board.
For the past seven years she’s been executive director of Oakland-based Urban Habitat, a non-profit social and environmental justice organization that works on affordable housing, transportation, and land use planning issues throughout the Bay Area, though mostly in the East Bay. The organization has been around since 2004, and receives most of its funding from grants. [PDF of its most recent 990.] (A quick check of grants made by Pacific Gas & Electric since then showed none to Urban Habitat, unlike other purported community groups.)
Ellis told the Guardian she’s interested in joining the SFPUC because it will bring her focus back toward San Francisco, where she’s been living since 1995. She currently resides in Bernal Heights.
When asked how her experiences have prepared her to be a public utilities commissioner, she said, “I have a long track record of working with folks who are often the most left out of the process,” she said, and that would continue at the SFPUC. If appointed, she plans to keep her job at Urban Habitat.
“Our organization is really interested in justice components,” she said, and in particular, climate justice. “What are the implications for low income communities if sea levels rise? If air pollution increases?” And, she pointed out, what kinds of mitigations can protect more vulnerable communities when it comes taxation through congestion pricing or the continual siting of power plants in areas where people live, with their pollution and carbon offsets occurring elsewhere?
That relates intimately to long term water and power issues under discussion in San Francisco, like the 51 percent renewable energy projections for the Community Choice Aggregation plan and what to do about the Mirant Power Plant that’s still operating in the mostly black, mostly low-income, and, consequently, most cancerous part of town, as well as how to move the city toward more affordable energy bills.
Ellis didn’t have much to say on specific issues like Mirant or CCA, admitting that she hasn’t “gone deep enough, I haven’t learned all the information” about these heavily nuanced and political issues.
But, her thinking seemed to fall along the right lines of public accountability and control, citing “the more obvious benefits of having more control than when it’s privatized. It seems like CCA would provide more clean energy and control and that in and of itself makes it something that’s attractive.”
Ellis said she sees real opportunities to connect the SFPUC with the communities she’s been helping at Urban Habitat. “The main issues I’m excited about are job opportunities and thinking through how to position those,” she said, pointing out that the SFPUC is projecting 24,000 jobs through the Water System Improvement Plan. She would like to see some of those jobs go to people who are low-income and jobless now. She’s also interested in “out of the box thinking for mitigating impacts for communities like Bayview Hunters Point and Potrero on water and energy issues.” She said most people don’t understand the scale of work undertaken by the SFPUC and she’d like to build a better relationship between it and low income and communities of color.
She said the recommendation to join the SFPUC came from Fred Blackwell, a former Urban Habitat board member who was appointed by Newsom to head the Redevelopment Agency in 2007. So far she’s met with several members of the Board of Supervisors and her appointment will be heard by the Rules Committee during their Dec. 4 meeting.
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