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Power Play? Edison Angers Moreno Valley

An electricity giant's media campaign is labeled an unfair attempt to short-circuit a city's aspirations to launch its own utility.

September 29, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Moreno Valley officials have accused Southern California Edison of spreading lies and misinformation about the city's efforts to start a municipal utility.

Edison, which stands to lose tens of thousands of customers if Moreno Valley goes forward with its proposal, recently ran a full-page ad in the local newspaper criticizing the city's efforts, had a pollster phone hundreds of residents and mailed postcards warning that "Moreno Valley is moving rapidly to enter the electric business -- without your input!" to mailboxes throughout the city.

The Moreno Valley utility would provide power to new housing developments and business parks in the city and, among the dozens of utilities being proposed by municipalities across the state, is one of the closest to coming on line. City officials say Edison is trying to derail the project to serve as a deterrent to others.

"It is a shot across the bow," said City Manager Gene Rogers. "We're the first significant city that would be doing this. Their motivations are really clear."

The city plans to hold public workshops on its utility plan and a proposed contract with a private firm to run it. The workshops will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Oct. 7 at City Hall.

Edison officials argue that city officials have acted secretly for months, and that residents deserve to know what their elected representatives are up to.

"Because the city of Moreno Valley, up to this point, has been less than forthcoming about the public process and about what they plan to do in formation of their utility, we felt as part of our fiduciary responsibility to our customers that they should be made aware that the city is planning on forming this utility," said spokesman Charley Wilson.

The energy crises that peaked in 2001 prompted dozens of cities to consider starting municipal utilities. Many have abandoned the idea or put it on hold until stronger economic times, but a few are moving forward.

Moreno Valley is aggressively pursuing plans to sell electricity to future development on currently vacant land in the city, and could start providing power to new homes and businesses by year's end. Roughly one-half of the 48-square-mile city is undeveloped and will one day be filled with as many as 30,000 homes and many businesses that would be customers of the city's utility.

Edison's campaign against the municipal utility began Sept. 14, when it ran an ad in the Moreno Valley edition of the Riverside Press-Enterprise. The ad, valued at $2,659, featured a letter from Edison President Robert G. Foster that said the city voted "in secret" to spend more than $400,000 on consultants' contracts and had budgeted an additional $220,000 of taxpayer dollars.

The letter also alleges that the city's parks and recreation department faces an $850,000 deficit that could harm children's after-school programs. Finally, the ad warns that the city is entering the volatile electricity market and taking on responsibility for millions of dollars of electrical equipment.

"We're very concerned that the city has provided almost no opportunity for citizens to learn about this proposed change and offer their input -- especially when there's so much at stake for everyone in Moreno Valley," the ad states.

The same week, Edison mailed postcards listing similar concerns to 29,000 residents and businesses. Four hundred residents also received phone calls from a pollster for Edison.

Wilson declined to disclose the poll's questions and results. But he said the information in the ad and mailer -- which cost $11,000 -- came in part from documents Edison received in response to a California Public Records Act request.

Tom Breitkreuz, the city's enterprise services manager, said there was no secret vote. The city has held at least three public meetings when the issue has been discussed, including a 2001 meeting in which the council voted to create the framework for a utility.

At least two more meetings are planned before a final vote occurs. The city has budgeted $720,000 for the planning, and has spent about $400,000. The city manager has the authority to sign contracts up to $100,000, and the City Council approved the total expenditure amount at a public meeting in July, he said. "It was all there in black and white."

City spokeswoman Angela Rushen said Edison's assertion about the parks and recreation deficit is misleading, because it implies cutbacks, whereas the council voted to temporarily subsidize program costs to avert cuts. Also, she noted, the department is a special district funded by property taxes, while the utility money has come from the general fund and is expected to be repaid.

"It's apples and oranges, all part of the misinformation," Rushen said.

Both sides agree on this: The ad and the mailings have achieved their goal: stirring up residents. Dozens have phoned and e-mailed City Hall.

Councilwoman Bonnie Flickinger said several constituents contacted her after reading the ad or mailer, which she dismissed as "propaganda."

"It is an expensive campaign of misinformation designed to make the city appear evil," she said. "The Edison document amounts to a declaration of war on the city."

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