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UCAN Board Fires Top Aide in 5-4 Vote : SDG&E; ‘Watchdog’ Unit May Shift Tack

San Diego County Business Editor

The founding executive director of the Utilities Consumer Action Network (UCAN) has been fired by the organization’s board of directors, capping months of personality clashes and signaling what could be a change of direction for the two-year-old group that acts as a “watchdog” over San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Garry DeLoss was dismissed Monday night on a 5-4 vote by the board. Attorney Michael Shames, who helped found UCAN in 1982 when he was a University of San Diego law student, was named interim executive director.

A combination of personality problems between DeLoss and certain board members and disagreements over UCAN’s direction were at the heart of the board’s action, according to several sources close to UCAN.

“Problems have existed for some time,” said one source close to UCAN. “Garry alienated lots of people and there was a major personality problem,” including an “out-of-control” shouting match last spring between DeLoss and members of Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s staff over the issue of city support for UCAN, the source said.

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In addition, sources said that DeLoss placed a major emphasis on arguing legal cases against SDG&E; before the state Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, while the majority of the board wanted to also increase its efforts to create a local and publicly visible citizen-activist network around utilities issues. UCAN’s legal costs were reportedly running about $10,000 per month, sources said.

“The board grew impatient with the lack of visibility,” said Chairman Jay Powell, who also heads the local Sierra Club office here.

The majority of the board believed that UCAN “needed to take a new direction and that DeLoss wasn’t the one to do that,” according to one of the four board members who voted to keep DeLoss.

An angry DeLoss charged Wednesday that there were “serious conflicts of interests” and “breaches of fiduciary responsibilities” on the board, and acknowledged that his firing was the “culmination of a series of problems.”

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He urged that people “stop giving money to UCAN” and said the organization should spend its remaining funds fighting rate hike requests and then “go out of business.” DeLoss said he “might start my own group” to work on consumer issues.

Powell said he “doesn’t understand how Garry can justify” his contentions. “It really gets down to a difference in recognizing that UCAN is set up to be a democratically elected board, and Garry internalized this so much that he (thought he was) UCAN.”

The UCAN directors voting to oust DeLoss are considered the “activist” contingent of the board--Powell, Jim Jacobson, Sue Woods, Bob Fellmeth and Maggie Kahn. Voting to retain DeLoss were directors Fred Nagle, Tanya Bowman, Bob Spanjian and Allan Razovsky.

Specifically, DeLoss earlier this year wanted to initiate a door-to-door fund-raising canvas for UCAN, but the board voted against the proposal, citing lack of available funds. DeLoss, according to sources, believed that some board members did not want to compete with the local chapter of the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), which was conducting its own neighborhood canvas.

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UCAN directors Woods and Fellmeth have past ties to CalPIRG but no current ones.

UCAN, with about 50,000 members, has been sharing SDG&E;'s billing envelopes on a quarterly basis since April, 1983, enclosing literature criticizing the utility for its high rates and taking a “public interest” position on SDG&E;'s rate requests before the PUC. At its peak, it had 67,000 dues-paying members.

Two months ago, the PUC ruled that UCAN could continue to insert its literature in SDG&E;'s bills. That order was stayed, however.

Times staff writer Greg Johnson contributed to this story.

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