State law is immutable (except when it’s not)

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the subject of the day was a proposed renewable energy plan, CleanPowerSF. No member of the board objected to the notion that the plan would give San Franciscans the option of using 100 percent renewable energy instead of just contracting with PG&E. At issue was the fact that being green takes green — the eco-friendly energy option could cost most ratepayers between $9 and $18 more per month, and residents would be automatically enrolled in the plan unless they opt out.

That unsuspecting people might find themselves paying more for power was objectionable to supervisors Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, who tried to amend the plan to require a showing of interest before enrolling people. That effort failed, but Supervisor Jane Kim successfully amended the law to beef up the outreach requirements for non-English speakers and those with low incomes.

Throughout the heated debate about the damnable opt-out requirement, the same line was repeated over and over again as if describing some unmovable force: California state law requires the plan to be “opt out” and not “opt in.”

Of course, it’s a state law because our own legislator made it that way. In 2001, then-Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, sponsored legislation outlining the structure of such community choice aggregation plans. According to the San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis, the law was “intended to protect consumers and return low, stable electricity rates to California by allowing communities to aggregate demand, thereby giving municipal aggregators greater market leverage to negotiate low price, long-term energy contracts.”

In endorsing Migden’s law, the League of California Cities wrote that it “would make it easier for a city or county to undertake a community aggregation program by establishing an ‘opt out’ procedure for participants, rather than the cumbersome ‘opt in’ process required in existing law.”

While it’s clear that the corralling of residents into the plan was always designed into the legislation, here in San Francisco the promise was always to “meet or beat” PG&E’s rates. But as far back as 2007, the Office of Economic Analysis warned that “the risk of a CCA provider not being able to meet or beat PG&E’s rates is significant.”

Despite this and other warnings of higher costs, no one ever amended the state law designed to force the maximum amount of people into the program and its higher costs. The Board of Supervisors frivolously opines about what goes on in the state Legislature, Congress and on the Rush Limbaugh radio show, and yet when it came to a subject that actually is its business, the board apparently made no effort to demand a change to the state law that automatically enrolls consumers in this regime.

“I respect the position that Supervisor Farrell has articulated,” Supervisor David Campos said. “I do think that he has legitimate concerns about the opt-out program. But the bottom line is that we, as a body, the city and county of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, do not have power to change the fact that this is an opt-out program. It is state law.”

So said the man who endorsed a resolution calling for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, one state law passed just last year was aimed squarely at San Francisco’s community choice aggregation plan. Sponsored by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, it prohibits PG&E from engaging in marketing against the plan. According to a statement from Leno’s office, “A genesis of this bill has been PG&E’s atrocious behavior surrounding the establishment of the Marin Energy Authority and its CCA program Marin Clean Energy.” It claimed that PG&E representatives attending local hearings about Marin County’s program “commonly misrepresented how the CCA mechanism works,” resulting in the utility being reprimanded. Now there is a statute to address that concern.

Leno’s legislation demonstrates that state laws are not immovable objects, especially when they affect what’s at stake here: the San Francisco community’s choice.

Quotes of the week

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting was quite sad. Ed Harrington, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is retiring after 28 years of service. Competent, charming and soulful, he’s one of my favorite people and I’m far from being the only one who holds him in high regard. The meeting included a lovely and well-deserved send-off for Harrington. 

 “You’re the Michael Jordan of San Francisco city government.”  — Supervisor David Campos

 “I just want to tip my glass of Hetch Hetchy tap water to you, Ed.” — Supervisor Eric Mar

“As a public servant, I aspire to be like an Ed Harrington.” — Supervisor Carmen Chu

Later in the meeting …

“Sarah Palin could see Russia from Alaska and I can see the Roxie from District 9. So, in some respects, it’s all part of the same neighborhood. So I’m supportive of this and happy to be involved in any effort to ensure that we help the Roxie.” — Supervisor David Campos at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, before voting to approve a liquor license so people can drink while watching movies at the Roxie Theater 

“Thank you, Supervisor Palin.” — Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, with a quick and poker-faced response 

“I used to go to have beer and pizza at Parkway Theater in Oakland. I would cross the bridge just to be able to hold my then-baby and to have alcohol, but also with a family environment.” 

— Supervisor Eric Mar, describing the joys of double-fisting with babies and beer before endorsing the license 

“President Barack Obama is satan and he has made a deal with the Catholic Church with serious consequences to Israel and our Social Security.” — Public commentator, proving once again that the board meetings are the best show in town.

Perhaps the supes should apply for a liquor license. 



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