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Vote no on Charter Amendment B

The proposed charter amendment and ordinance proposition is less about solar energy than it is a grab for political power.

February 26, 2009

Set aside, for a moment, the secretive and rushed process to get the March 3 solar power charter amendment commonly known as Measure B on the ballot, the disingenuous campaign for it and the outrageous attempts to make voters equate this measure with the city's entire solar energy program. The question The Times sought to answer in the weeks it has examined the measure was whether, if passed, it would leave Los Angeles and its residents better off than they would be without it.

We conclude that it would not, and that it would in fact undermine both the city's solar energy efforts and its political oversight and accountability. The Times urges a no vote on Measure B.

Let's start with some basics. First, despite false claims you'll read in ballot arguments and see on the city's cable channel, the solar power to be created under the program would not hasten the shutdown of any coal plant or otherwise replace the fossil fuel burning that generates the city's electric power. It would generate power only when the sun is shining, and although there is nothing wrong with that, that "peaking power" would supplement, but could never replace, the noxious coal burning that has long made the city's energy so inexpensive. Department of Water and Power officials acknowledge that.

Second, the warring "studies" on the cost to ratepayers are inconclusive, no matter how the campaigns try to spin them. Sunshine is free, but converting it to usable electricity is not. DWP and union officials acknowledge that solar power will likely never be as cheap as coal is today. But it's equally true that the cost of burning coal will soon rise to reflect its effect on the environment. The most straightforward statement on costs comes in the financial impact statement in your ballot, which notes that the DWP would draft (and the City Council would approve or modify) an implementation plan, and until then, "the specific costs and financial benefits of the program cannot be determined."

And third: Much of what Measure B promises to deliver is good; The Times wants it, and Los Angeles needs it. A program to produce at least 400 megawatts of power from the sunshine that beats down on the city's rooftops makes perfect sense, and the DWP should get moving on such a program. There's also nothing wrong with trying to make the city the capital of solar power generation and manufacturing, or with trying to create new solar-related jobs.

But here's the problem: Los Angeles can do all of those things without Measure B. In fact, the DWP is already working on programs to generate about 900 megawatts of solar power, and it didn't stop to ask voter permission. It should do the same with the 400 megawatts of in-basin rooftop energy.

So it ought to make voters wonder: Why is Measure B on the ballot, if it's not needed to produce the energy? Proponents say they're acting out of concern for full disclosure and transparency. That's simply laughable.

Something else is going on here. It's a grab for power -- the political kind, not the solar stuff -- by the City Council and the union that represents DWP workers. That might be OK if it got the city its best possible solar program, but it doesn't. Measure B doesn't even make clear what the city's solar program will be. It simply sets a goal, requires the DWP to create a plan, then allows the City Council to adopt it or not, as it sees fit.

The important parts are not in the ballot arguments or the campaign literature. Measure B, if passed, would transfer oversight of in-basin solar power from a five-member commission, with at least a modicum of political independence, to the City Council. But because the measure would allow the council to change or suspend everything that's in it, the council's new authority would not be accompanied by new accountability.

On the contrary, this measure would give the council sweeping political cover. If it's in the council's interest to proceed with the plan, it can claim voters told them to do it. If it's in the council's interest to stop well short of the 400 megawatts the voters think they're getting, they can claim voters told them to do it.

Meanwhile, instead of having guaranteed themselves 400 megawatts of in-basin solar power, voters, perhaps unwittingly, will have waded into the middle of an ongoing policy battle over whether private enterprise could make solar energy production more efficient by being allowed to sell or distribute excess energy. Measure B would eliminate much of the private role. In so doing, it would protect the city's utility and its union jobs, and that's not necessarily a bad thing -- but it's not what most voters believe they have been asked to decide.

This is an extraordinarily bad way to make policy, and it is becoming typical of the way Los Angeles operates -- though Measure B breaks new ground in hiding the truth from the public. It's a City Hall measure presented as though it were a voter-sponsored initiative to demand that city leaders take some particular action. In fact, it's the city leaders who crafted this measure, supposedly to instruct themselves to do something, but in fact to get preemptive absolution from the electorate.

Los Angeles can have smart solar power without a deceptive and rushed charter amendment. The Times urges voters to reject this cynical attempt to manipulate the policymaking process. Vote no on Measure B.

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