PG&E ballot initiative clears a hurdle

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By Rebecca Bowe

The Guardian has received several accounts that paid signature gatherers for a ballot initiative backed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. that could darken prospects statewide for public-power programs were pitching it in a way that, at best, wasn’t entirely straightforward. And by several accounts, the petition has stopped circulating because proponents successfully gathered the 694,354 signatures needed before it can qualify for the ballot.

One voter wrote to say that a canvasser approached him in Pasadena seeking signatures for two different petitions: the PG&E-backed initiative, and a proposal to legalize and tax marijuana. Once he signed the petition to legalize pot, she asked him to sign the PG&E petition as if it were merely a second copy, he charged. She later stated that she had been instructed by her supervisor to do so, according to his account.

The Guardian also got reports that signature gatherers have denied that the petition was funded by PG&E, told people that signing it would result in lower utility rates, or described it as an initiative to promote clean energy in California.

In reality, the initiative, which was previously titled the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, would require a two-thirds majority vote before any community choice aggregation program could be funded or implemented. This could jeopardize San Francisco’s fledgling CleanPower SF, a community choice aggregation program that would provide San Franciscans with electricity from cleaner energy sources. The Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to oppose the initiative.

While voters can -- and should -- read the title and summary of a proposed initiative before signing on the dotted line, canvassers who are paid by the signature clearly have an incentive to speed the process along and frame a proposal in a favorable light. And if signature gatherers stand outside health food stores in the Bay Area asking voters to support legalizing marijuana and developing clean energy, it’s an easy sell.

Ken Masterton of Masterton & Wright, a signature-gathering firm hired by the Tax Cannabis 2010 campaign to petition for the pot-legalization proposal, told the Guardian that he would not circulate the PG&E-sponsored initiative. “I only circulate ones that I would vote for,” explained Masterton, who has been in the business for 20 years.

Because paid signature gatherers typically work as independent contractors, he said, a campaign such as Tax Cannabis 2010 has no practical control over what combination of petitions a signature gatherer hits the streets with. “There’s a randomness there,” he noted, adding that “it would be a big leap” for someone to convince a voter that there is a link between legalizing pot and making it harder for public utilities to establish their own electricity systems.

But it couldn’t have hurt the initiative’s chances to hit the streets on the same clipboards as a bid to legalize pot -- especially in the Bay Area.

Public power activist Eric Brooks told the Guardian that he’d heard the PG&E initiative had stopped circulating, because the clipboard-wielding army had gathered enough signatures. A spokeswoman from the California Secretary of State office said that it’s still officially listed as being in circulation, but a call to one of the signature-gathering agencies listed on a Craigslist job post told a different story.

“The electric petition is over,” a voice stated in a recorded message for signature-gatherers working at a firm in the South Bay. “You will not get paid for the signatures on the electric petition after today.” Petitioners received $0.70 per signature when registered voters signed.