Sylvia Siegel, 89; pioneering advocate for consumers

Times Staff Writer

Sylvia Siegel, a pioneering consumer advocate in California who bedeviled both the state’s public utilities and the Public Utilities Commission as the founder of the San Francisco-based group TURN, has died. She was 89.

Siegel died Saturday morning at a nursing home in Mill Valley, Calif., said her daughter Polly. She had been in failing health for some time.

Feisty, tenacious and acerbic, Siegel became a dynamic figure at commission meetings, challenging rate hike applications and utility spending that she considered illegal or unfair.

Her efforts are credited with saving consumers millions of dollars.

According to a statement from TURN on Sunday, one of her key accomplishments was the establishment of a “lifeline rate,” a minimum amount of gas and electricity made available to all California consumers at a reasonable cost. It is now known as a baseline rate, and the plan is seen as an essential protection for low-income residents.


In addition, TURN said that under her leadership the group helped expose $346 million in fuel cost overcharges in 1974 by PG&E; and Southern California Edison, and in 1988 defeated a plan by Edison to impose a “customer charge” on all customers even if they did not use any electricity during a given month.

In a statement Sunday, senior TURN staff attorney Mike Florio said Siegel “charmed, disarmed and went for the jugular. Even her adversaries, whom she routinely called all sorts of unprintable names, spoke fondly of her.”

She was born Sheila Marrich in Detroit on May 10, 1918, and moved to San Francisco in 1944 after earning a sociology degree from Wayne State University.

She worked for two years as a wage analyst for the War Labor Board, then took a short-term job with the California Nurses Assn. That job lasted nine years and involved such labor activities as surveying employment opportunities, union organizing and collective bargaining.

In the late 1950s, she quit working, married Paul Siegel, a Social Security examiner, and had two children.

A decade later, she was hired as executive director of the Assn. of California Consumers. She used her skills to organize consumers and developed a plan to gain a little attention.

That plan, she told the Times’ Al Martinez in 1982, involved some street theater, marching to the PUC and raising “a bit of hell.”

“It was a case involving the telephone company,” she told Martinez. “I didn’t know a damned thing about PT&T; or how you fought them. All I wanted to do was make a splash. Well, I stood up and hollered and made a splash all right. . . . “

Her initial foray broadened her curiosity, Martinez wrote, and in 1973 she started TURN from the kitchen of her Mill Valley home.

Under her leadership, TURN, now also known as The Utility Reform Network, developed a statewide membership of 45,000.

“Her timing was perfect,” an unnamed PUC member told Martinez. “Sylvia stepped in as consumer consciousness was going up. The year she got started, we had 19,596 consumer complaints and inquiries. Last year we had 86,124. No wonder she has survived.”

Over the years, Siegel became a self-taught expert in the arcane area of utility law and was once granted $150,000 by the U.S. Department of Energy to teach consumer advocates from 12 Western states.

After retiring as head of TURN in 1989, Siegel founded another group called Consumer Cable Cop and went to work against unfair cable charges. She was also elected to the Marin Healthcare District Board and served on the board of directors of National Public Radio affiliate KQED in San Francisco. TURN named her director emeritus of the group’s board of directors in 2000.

Siegel, who according to her daughter survived breast cancer in 1964 and a recurrence of the disease in 1976, moved into a nursing home in 2001 after breaking her hip. Even there, people asked her to lead protests.

“She was out front in protesting the Iraq war in the nursing home,” her daughter said.

In addition to her daughter Polly Siegel of Los Altos and son-in-law Kurt Shoens, she is survived by a son, Richard Siegel of Mill Valley, his wife Megan and their two children.

There will be no services.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to TURN, 711 Van Ness Ave., Suite 350, San Francisco, CA 94102, to the American Cancer Society or to the Marin Hospice.