San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob seems to be the only ethical supervisor we have. Whose side is Greg Cox on?
Shut-off plan's vocal backers linked to SDG&E
Supervisor questions ties to area nonprofits
By Jeff McDonald
San Diego Union-Tribune Staff Writer
June 21, 2009
Organizations with representatives at an April committee meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission that did not disclose their connections to San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
Girl Scouts San Diego-Imperial Council Inc.: Board member Karen Hutchens formerly worked for SDG&E and has represented the utility as a client.
Hutchens Public Relations: Associates Scott Alevy and Manny Aguilar testified favorably about the shut-off plan. SDG&E has been a client.
TaxpayersAdvocate.org: Founder Scott Barnett has done consulting for SDG&E.
Vista Chamber of Commerce: SDG&E is a “Chairman's Circle” sponsor, which requires minimum donation of $3,000.
Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce: Board member Ahmad Solomon works for SDG&E.
San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce: Board member Ahmad Solomon works for SDG&E.
Santee Chamber of Commerce: Board member Donald Parent works for SDG&E.
What: Board of Supervisors meeting
Where: County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego
When East County residents gathered before state regulators in April to debate San Diego Gas and Electric Co.'s plan to shut off power during the worst conditions to keep from sparking wildfires, something gnawed at Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Speakers from the South Bay to North County showed up at the three-hour meeting in Alpine to tout the plan as a safe, reasonable way to reduce the fire threat across the rugged, dry backcountry.
Jacob, who has long feuded with the utility, couldn't figure out why a chamber executive from Vista or a Girl Scouts board member would drive out on a Tuesday night to weigh in on the issue.
Then she realized that almost every speaker in support of the shut-off plan had a connection to SDG&E, which donates money to local charities and has employees involved with many nonprofits.
“They sit on the boards, they contribute to organizations and then when they're involved in a controversial issue, they call in the favors,” Jacob said.
SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said the company and its employees do not donate time or money to community groups for political gain.
“We're pretty proud of the deep roots we have in the community,” Donovan said.
In a follow-up e-mail, she wrote: “Our giving to non-profits and our volunteer board service come with no strings attached.”
Jacob is asking the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to oppose SDG&E's shut-off plan, which would impose blackouts on 60,000 customers during high-risk conditions to reduce the threat of power-line-related fires.
The proposal, now under consideration by the state's Public Utilities Commission, has drawn criticism from residents, telecommunications companies and school and water districts, among others.
“Opponents have demonstrated that the risks of cutting power to homes and businesses during extreme fire conditions outweigh the potential benefits,” Jacob wrote to her board colleagues.
Jacob has questioned SDG&E's business practices before. When deregulation sent power rates soaring for thousands of San Diego-area customers in 2000 and 2001, she campaigned against SDG&E billing policies and lobbied state officials for rollbacks.
But it is not certain Jacob's latest effort will be supported by the full board, which rarely fails to reach a consensus. Supervisor Pam Slater-Price co-signed the opposition letter, but Supervisors Greg Cox and Ron Roberts have a history of supporting SDG&E.
Roberts did not respond to questions about the issue last week. In a statement, Cox said he had not read the request, but he worries about a power shut-off impeding mass warnings to residents. An aide to Supervisor Bill Horn said Horn would not comment before the meeting.
Whether her recommendation wins approval, Jacob is troubled that people with ties to SDG&E routinely appear before regulators on behalf of the utility and don't disclose the connection.
The Alpine hearing attracted representatives from the Chula Vista, San Ysidro and Vista chambers of commerce, as well the local Girl Scouts council and taxpayer advocate Scott Barnett, all of whom have professional relationships with the utility.
“This is an effort to fool the PUC into thinking there are all these organizations and folks that support SDG&E's efforts on the merits of the case, on the facts,” Jacob said, “when in fact it's nothing more than buying influence.”
Consumer advocate Michael Shames said SDG&E has a history of contributing to community groups then asking for help in return.
“It's all about creating the appearance of community support, thus providing political cover to the decision-makers,” said Shames, director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network. “Some people don't take money from SDG&E because they don't want the strings.”
Nonprofit executives who accept donations from SDG&E or recruit utility executives to their boards disagree.
Paul O'Neal, who runs the Vista Chamber of Commerce, drove 65 miles each way to speak at the April hearing in Alpine. The SDG&E shut-off plan represents “a potential solution” to persistent fire threats, he testified.
In an interview last week, O'Neal said that the utility does spread its “wealth around the entire community” but that this isn't necessarily bad.
“They feel they have a civic duty,” he said. “Are they buying a vote? Certainly not in this case.”
Karen Hutchens is a public relations professional from Point Loma who used to be an SDG&E spokeswoman. Now the company is one of her clients.
When she addressed the PUC committee, she identified herself as a Girl Scouts board member and proxy for Executive Director Jo Dee Jacob, who is Supervisor Jacob's sister-in-law. The Girl Scouts “applaud SDG&E for their leadership in evaluating the situation,” Hutchens read from a letter Jo Dee Jacob signed.
Jo Dee Jacob last week defended the Girl Scouts' joining the debate. “Girls'safety and fire prevention is very, very important to us,” she said.
Two of Hutchens' associates – Scott Alevy and Manny Aguilar – also spoke in favor of the shut-off plan without disclosing their dealings with the utility.
SDG&E's Donovan said the company will strive to persuade the county supervisors not to oppose the shut-off plan.
“You can be sure we will be there to reiterate to the board that our plan is about public safety and emergency preparedness and protecting the region from catastrophic wildfires by eliminating a potential ignition source,” she wrote.