By Rebecca Bowe
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who serves as chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission, frowned at what he characterized as “shadiness” at a March 6 LAFCo meeting, and ultimately moved to hold off on a decision to award a contract that would have pushed things forward with San Francisco's Community Choice Aggregation program.
Ironically, many of the advocates who typically voice concerns that the municipal-power program is moving too slowly expressed relief that this decision was stalled, saying that if the contract had gone to the wrong firm, the integrity of San Francisco’s CCA program would have suffered.
LAFCo is charged with working alongside the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to implement a community-choice aggregation program, which would bring municipal electricity to San Francisco using locally produced, cleaner energy generation.
Under discussion at the meeting was whether LAFCo should award contracts to consultants for completing two tasks, which will ultimately be packaged with other elements to that are necessary for implementing the CCA.
Local Power, a San Francisco-based company and former nonprofit which drafted the statewide CCA rule and put forth a vision for locally-produced green power for San Francisco, bid on the jobs for $130,000. Navigant Consulting, Inc., a Chicago-based firm that has worked on several CCA programs throughout the state, submitted a bid for $100,000. LAFCo’s executive officer, Nancy Miller, recommended that the commission go with Navigant (Miller based her decision on the lower price, but she also noted that she had worked with Navigant before).
What began as a straightforward discussion about pricing and qualifications became muddied, however, when questions arose about the Navigant representative’s past work history with PG&E. All parties involved in getting CCA off the ground expect PG&E to fight the municipal power project as it gets underway.
Commissioner David Campos, who represents District 9 on the Board of Supervisors, raised the issue with Larry Regal, the Navigant representative. “As you are clearly aware, there is an overarching conflict here in terms of what we’re trying to do here with respect to CCA and what that could mean to PG&E,” Campos noted. “And we have heard testimony and comments about PG&E in other jurisdictions, and in this one, waging war against similar programs. … I do have a concern about the connection and the tie.”
Campos pressed Regal, asking, “Is there any kind of safeguard that you have in place internally to address a concern of this type?” But he didn’t get an answer right away.
Instead, Michael Campbell, the new CCA program director hired some 10 weeks ago by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, leaped up from his seat and began whispering to Regal. After consulting with Campbell for a few moments, Regal turned back to the microphone and started to assure the commission that his firm did not receive any funding from PG&E.
But Mirkarimi cut him short. “I don’t want there to be assistance unless it’s asked for,” he scolded. “I don’t like the shadiness of anybody helping potential vendors that are trying to gain employment with the city and county, and that goes for both sides,” he said. “This has got to be done in a clean and above-board way.”
Campbell later told the Guardian that he’d perceived that Regal might have misunderstood Campos’ question, and was trying to clarify things for him. “I said, ‘I think he’s asking, are you getting paid by PG&E?’” Campbell explained.
After the Q-and-A, however, Mirkarimi made a motion to put off awarding the contract, saying he wanted more information. Commissioners Hope Schmeltzer and Bevan Dufty opposed that idea on grounds that it was hindering progress of the whole CCA endeavor.
During public comment, several grassroots activists spoke against awarding the contract to Navigant, saying that it could derail the CCA program. “Navigant does almost all of its business with fossil fuel energy corporations and private utilities,” Eric Brooks, a representative the San Francisco Green Party, wrote in a mass email dispersed after the meeting. “[It has] been responsible for wrecking similar clean energy projects all over the state of California by steering them away from local clean and renewable energy development, to instead favor fossil fuel power plants and large, expensive desert based solar facilities that PG&E … can easily own and control.” Brooks also penned a letter urging LAFCo to move forward with CCA, despite setbacks from SFPUC. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and more than 20 others have signed it.
Campbell, who joined the SFPUC in December to run the CCA program, told the Guardian that he would have been in a better position to move forward on critical pieces of CCA implementation had the contract been awarded. “The message [from LAFCo] has been very clear: Let’s get this moving,” notes Campbell, who says he’s been putting in more than 50 hours a week as program director.
Campbell has also worked for PG&E in the past: He spent two-and-a-half years working on energy efficiency and demand-response programs for the utility, preceded by a five-year stint with the California Public Utilities Commission. When asked how his history at PG&E might influence his role with the CCA program, Campbell responded, “if anything, I understand a bit more about how their opposition works.”
To Michael Bornstein, a LAFCo commissioner and director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Navigant issue is secondary to the central question of whether the CCA program can move past the “unacceptable number of delays” it has been met with on the part of the SFPUC. “Since they haven’t made significant progress, I feel LAFCo needs to push ahead,” he told the Guardian, but added that he hopes Campbell will be a driving force at the SFPUC. The vision for the city’s CCA program, he says, “is beyond what anybody else is doing. San Francisco can provide real leadership … as we transform our economy from one that’s dependent on fossil fuels to one that’s based on renewable energy.”
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