Prop E Fight Reveals More About Newsom than Supes

by Paul Hogarth on April 30, 2008

San Francisco voters will soon receive slick mailers funded by PG&E that urge a “no” vote on Proposition E – calling it a “power play” by the Board of Supervisors. We’ve heard the Mayor and his allies argue this before – on prior efforts to reform Muni, the Police or the Planning Commissions. But unlike those prior Charter Amendments, Prop E – which reforms the S.F. Public Utilities Commission – still lets the Mayor appoint all five of the body’s Commissioners. It simply requires that the people who manage the city’s water, power and sewer agency be qualified, with minimal oversight by the Supervisors. But Gavin Newsom is reacting as if it were another progressive coup – while he says we need to move beyond the “polarized and paralyzed” battles of yesterday. With so few people even focusing on the June 3rd ballot, will Newsom get away with this?

The Public Utilities Commission provides water, wastewater, and municipal power services to San Francisco – and is in the process of seismically upgrading the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. It also supplies water to 1.6 million customers in three Bay Area counties under a contractual agreement with 28 wholesale water agencies. It’s a very powerful body that could do great work for the City, but its low public profile allows the Mayor and PG&E to hold tremendous sway in the process.

Last December, the Mayor suddenly fired PUC General Manager Susan Leal – not because she was doing a bad job, but – in his own words – she was not sufficiently loyal. “Some people that appear to be doing an extraordinary job,” said Newsom, “will not fit for a second term … for whatever personality (reasons), they are not necessarily clicking with the rest of the team.”

Now that the Supervisors have put Prop E on the ballot, Newsom’s response is that it’s just another progressive power grab to “politicize” an agency that serves a useful public purpose. In his ballot argument against it, the Mayor and Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier said “we need citizen oversight from a qualified commission, not political meddling. But that’s exactly what Prop E would do – put even more politics into a vital city agency.”

But the facts don’t gel with that opinion. Prop E would require that each of the five PUC Commissioners fit under one of the following categories: (a) an expert in environmental policy, (b) a finance whiz, (c) a specialist in public utilities or water systems, (d) a ratepayer or consumer advocate, and (e) a general member of the public. Current law merely requires that the Commissioners belong to the last category. The Mayor under Prop E would still appoint all five Commissioners, but a simple majority of the Board could reject them (as opposed to the current two-thirds threshold.)

It’s not unusual for a Commission to require each of its members to have minimum qualifications. At least four of the MTA’s seven Commissioners must be regular Muni riders, and at least two must have professional experience in the field of public transit. The Police Commission must have at least one retired trial attorney, and the Building Inspection Commission must have an architect and a residential builder. And requiring confirmation from the Board of Supervisors is a more moderate approach than prior Commission reforms that simply split appointments between the Mayor and the Board President.

Still, Newsom and his allies treat Prop E with the same level of disdain that they’ve had for prior Charter Amendments that curtail the Mayor’s power. In a paid ballot argument, the Chamber of Commerce once again uses Supervisor Chris Daly as a way to caricature Prop E as an out-of-control leftist power grab. Ironically, Daly recently split from his progressive allies on the Board to secure the confirmation of PUC Commissioner Richard Sklar – much to the chagrin of public power advocates like the Bay Guardian.

For a measure that has support across the spectrum – from Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi to Sean Elsbernd – Newsom is trying to turn Prop E into another ideological fight.

One argument against Prop E is that because the Mayor would have to re-appoint a whole new PUC in August, critical efforts to upgrade Hetch Hetchy might be derailed through a political stalemate between Newsom and the Board in the confirmation process. But that speaks more about the Mayor’s contentious relationship with the Supervisors – due to his reluctance to engage them in policy making – than anything else. He wouldn’t attend a monthly Board meeting after voters made it official policy, and then put all his political chits into defeating a similar Charter Amendment last November.

And judging by the PUC’s current composition, a good split to make sure each of the stakeholders have a seat at the table is a good means of cleaning house. Three of the five Commissioners have an expertise in finance and one (David Hochschild) is an environmental policy guru, but there is no voice on the current body that speaks for consumers and ratepayers – or (as far as I can tell) anyone who’s an expert in public utilities or water systems.

If we want to reform the PUC in ways that will outlast the Newsom Administration, Prop E is a reasonable measure. At the very least, it would avoid the type of political patronage we’ve seen on the Commission before.

In 2003, Mayor Willie Brown nearly got to appoint Andrew Lee – who admitted he knew nothing about utilities – as political payback to his mother (the notorious Julie Lee.) Fortunately, Chris Daly used his power as Acting Mayor to derail such a confirmation – and instead appointed the former President of the Sierra Club to sit on the Commission.

If Newsom’s serious about moving beyond political polarization, he should lay off on his opposition to Prop E – and stop characterizing it as a power grab.

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