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EDITION TIME ELECTION RETURNS

Plan to Create S.F. Power Utility Looks Like Winner

Electricity: Backers say the measure, which would take customers from PG&E, will save money. Two initiatives to fund solar energy pass.

November 07, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — A measure designed to pull the plug on Pacific Gas & Electric by creating a publicly owned utility here appeared headed for approval late Tuesday as voters weighed choices on how to best gain relief from the state energy crisis.

Voters also solidly approved two solar energy measures that advocates say could establish San Francisco as one of the nation's largest solar power producers.

However, with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted, election officials said the results of controversial Proposition F, one of two measures that set the stage for a takeover of PG&E, was still too close to call.

Supporters of the utility pledged that the fight was not over.

"We believe there are 20,000 more absentee ballots to be counted, so we have not conceded defeat on Proposition F," said Jon Kaufman, campaign manager for the PG&E-sponsored Coalition for Affordable Public Services, which led a campaign to defeat both measures.

"I think it's very close. The public is very divided, so I say let's look very closely at this issue. When an election is this close, it's no mandate for anything."

With 97% of precincts reporting, Proposition F was slightly ahead with 51% in favor. The measure would transform the city's utilities commission into a water and power agency similar to those in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Its sister anti-PG&E initiative, Proposition I, was behind with 49% in favor and appeared headed for defeat. It would create an independent municipal utility district.

Proposition B, which would allow the city to issue $100 million in revenue bonds to fund solar and wind power, passed overwhelmingly with 73% approval. About 55% of voters favored Proposition H, which would empower the Board of Supervisors to authorize additional revenue bonds for renewable energy and conservation projects without voter approval.

Battling a $1-million ad campaign by the utility's parent company, PG&E Corp., the two public power initiatives that promoted seizing local customers of this city's struggling hometown power company had drawn increasing voter support in recent weeks.

But on Tuesday, both sides worried that the expected poor voter turnout would hurt their chances.

"We're doing everything we can to see that people who support us go to the polls," said Ross Mirkarimi, who directs the campaign for public power. "And we hope the others just stay home."

Viewing Propositions I and F as a threat to PG&E's livelihood, the utility's supporters recently unleashed a barrage of media ads. One featured guinea pigs--representing area voters--who would become lost in a maze of energy problems if the risky public measures passed.

Another mailer explained that the choice facing San Francisco voters was spending $800 million to buy out "PG&E's used electric system" or staying on track with existing priorities such as building housing, addressing the city's homeless problem or continuing earthquake retrofits.

"Our city has enough to do," the ad said. "Now is not the time to take on new risks and new responsibilities."

Measure I would create a municipal utility district for San Francisco and nearby Brisbane. Run by a five-member elected board, the district would have authority to deliver electricity to about 365,000 local customers. It also could sell revenue bonds to buy PG&E's power delivery system, which carries a price tag that some say could reach $1 billion.

Proposition F would create a water and power agency in San Francisco and a board with similar powers. The measure would disband the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which delivers water and sewer services to the city and power to some city departments.

Initiatives B and H would fund a variety of renewable energy projects, with the goal--supporters say--of bringing San Francisco closer to building the biggest solar energy complex in the world.

Solar power backers stole their share of the public spotlight prior to Tuesday's election--roving the city in a van equipped with huge photovoltaic panels that were used to demonstrate the viability of solar power.

Said Mirkarimi, who also directs the solar power campaign: "It was a beautiful thing."

Advocates contend that unseating PG&E could provide electricity at lower prices. Opponents argue that start-up costs for a utility district and legal challenges from PG&E could stall lower rates for more than a decade.

Statewide energy shortages focused interest in municipal utilities this year as city power agencies offered electricity rates 25% lower than those of PG&E.

Public power advocates predicted early Tuesday that success in their campaign could inspire other cities in the utility's territory--such as San Jose and Davis--to create their own measures.

"This is a beachhead campaign," said Mirkarimi. "PG&E knows that a victory for us here will be exported to other cities statewide that have been looking to convert to public power."

But Kaufman disagreed. "Even if San Francisco pulls off its public power coup, I don't think other cities will rush in to follow its lead," he said.

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