SDG&E; Survey Tests Support for Municipally Owned Utility

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Gas & Electric, which has vowed to oppose a municipal takeover of its gas and electric businesses, recently hired a well-known polling company to determine if San Diegans are likely to support such a takeover.

San Francisco-based Field Research Corp. is conducting a “specific survey to obtain opinions on municipalization of the utility system,” according to Karen Hutchens, SDG&E;'s governmental affairs director.

“We have a need to know what the public attitude is rather than just hearing the political leaders who are professing the value of municipalization,” Hutchens said.

SDG&E; funded the poll because, “in the final outcome, the public will determine whether or not they want to spend taxpayer funds to take over the utility system,” Hutchens said.


Declined Comment

Hutchens declined to comment on specific questions included in the telephone poll and declined to say when the poll results will be released. Field spokesman Mark Decamillo declined to comment on details of the survey. “We’re in the midst of the survey and, obviously, we hope to avoid any undue publicity,” Decamillo said.

The survey evidently is the first of many steps that SDG&E; will take in the wake of SDG&E; Chairman Tom Page’s recent pledge to actively fight municipalization of the utility, which has 1 million gas and electric customers in San Diego and southern Orange counties.

Talk of municipalization surfaced in December, shortly after SDG&E;'s board of directors accepted a $2.4-billion merger proposal by Rosemead-based SCEcorp, Edison’s parent company. That merger, which would create the nation’s largest electric utility with 4.8 million customers, must be approved by regulators and shareholders of SCEcorp and SDG&E.;

To Take More Public Role

According to those in attendance at a recent San Diego Economic Development Corp. breakfast meeting, Edison Chairman Howard Allen said that SDG&E; would soon take a more public role in opposing the proposed takeover.

Fran Miner, a San Diego resident who recently was contacted by a Field employee, maintained Thursday that the poll was “slanted to make SDG&E; look good and convince you that public ownership would be bad.”

Field’s poll seemed to “imply that public ownership is not as good as private,” Miner said. One question sought to determine if the San Diego County Water Authority “was well enough run” to acquire and correctly operate SDG&E;, Miner said.

Other questions tried to determine whether San Diegans think a publicly owned and operated utility would be able to match SDG&E;'s service and philanthropic levels, Miner said.

In a related development, the San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors Thursday approved using at least $40,000 in public funds for lobbying in Sacramento to obtain legislative approval to run an electric utility. State Sen. Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) has offered to lead the effort to pass legislation authorizing the water authority to acquire SDG&E.;

“The cost to work the legislation through will be between $40,000 and $60,000,” said Lester Snow, general manager of the water authority.

Jim Melton, director of public information for the water authority, said: “It’s for public information activities to get the Water Act modified to allow us to operate a gas and electric utility.”

$25,000 Grant

Melton said the water district will ask for contributions from other cities. San Diego has given a $25,000 grant for a study of the feasibility of a public takeover of SDG&E.; The council will decide next week whether to grant the water authority $225,000 more.

San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s office has received “a generally positive response to the idea of at least exploring” the possibility of municipalizing the SDG&E; system, according to spokeswoman Chris Cameron. “I think people are somewhat threatened by the idea of Edison coming in from out of town,” she said.

Claim Disputed

SDG&E; Chief Operating Officer Jack E. Thomas on Thursday disputed Stirling’s recent claim that a municipal utility in San Diego would enjoy access to cheap hydroelectric power that would help reduce electric rates by 50%.

“The pool of low-cost hydroelectric power available to municipal utilities has already been claimed,” Thomas wrote in a letter sent to Stirling. “There isn’t any left over to dole out, not without bumping somebody else.”

Thomas maintained that electric rates in San Diego would not necessarily go down if cheap hydroelectric power were available. “Simply put, hydro power is not a sole component or even a major component of what goes into making up the rates customers pay for their energy,” Thomas wrote in the letter that SDG&E; made available to reporters.

Thomas also wrote that it is not in the best interests of San Diego residents to turn control of “precious commodities such as electricity and natural gas” over to the water authority.

Times staff writer Shawn Maree Smith contributed to this report.