Who's fighting PG&E on Prop 16?


All week, I've been talking to people who are getting together to oppose Prop. 16, the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.-bankrolled ballot measure that seeks to kill community choice aggregation by launching a deceptive, $35 million campaign to alter the state constitution by requiring a two-thirds vote before local government could move forward with an alternative energy program. It's sad, yet inspiring in a way, to hear volunteer anti-Prop 16 campaigner Ben Zolno say, "We spent $30 of our own money" to make YouTube videos against Prop 16, in hopes that the clips might go viral and counter PG&E's corporate marketing pitches that Californians who watch a lot of television could probably recite from memory.

Groups, including The Utility Reform Network (TURN), the Local Clean Energy Alliance, and a number of informative Web sites have sprung up to fight the top-dollar PR blitz and set the record straight on Prop 16.

Will Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, Web videos, and a growing stack of newspaper editorials against Prop 16 be enough to counter a slick advertising campaign with a recession-friendly title like the "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act?" It's a stretch but, to borrow a phrase, you can't fool all the people all of the time. We haven't seen any die-hards break out the rock-climbing gear to scale a skyscraper and drop a No on 16 banner, nor have any crowds of demonstrators been spotted surrounding PG&E's San Francisco headquarters demanding the right to choose green, publicly owned power. Then again, pressure is building around PG&E, and fed-up ratepayers are gearing up to speak out this coming Monday, May 24.

Protests and rallies are planned for a May 24 public information session about PG&E's requested rate increases over the next four years, totaling 30 percent. The May 24 public participation hearings will take place at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the California Public Utilities Commission, in the auditorium at 505 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco. Rallies decrying PG&E's proposed rate hikes, its brazen Prop 16 campaign, and its attempts to thwart Marin County's Community Choice Aggregation program will be held at noon and 5 p.m.

"It is a bad decision to vote on Prop 16," Zolno says. "It is a bad decision for everybody, except PG&E." But he's also realistic about what he and other Prop 16 opponents are up against. The company has rolled out a stunningly deceptive multimillion-dollar media campaign, featuring enough mailers to equal a small forest as well as endless TV ads with slick sound bites that have little to do with the motive behind the measure. And, "It's conservatives and Republicans who are going to be the main voters in this election," Zolno pointed out.

Paul Fenn, an architect behind the concept of community choice aggreation whose vision lies squarely in the crosshairs of PG&E's big-gun campaign, likened the company's behavior to that of robber barons. "What does it cost to brainwash five million people into shooting themselves in the foot?" Fenn wonders. "I feel like I'm in South America, where it's normal to have this stuff."

On May 20, the California Public Utilities Commission modified its rules to make it clear that PG&E is barred from printing outright lies and sending them to voters on mailers that relate to CCA, but failed to prohibit the company from engaging in the kind of smear campaigns it's unleashed in San Francisco and Marin against the competing programs. "PG&E's chronic attacks are out of control," San Francisco Sup. Ross Mirkarimi noted. "They act as if they are above the law using ratepayer money for political purposes."


Ben Zolno's anti-Prop 16 film