PG&E’s customers vote down Prop. 16


Fed up with big bills, distrustful of new meters that show higher usage and chagrined by power shutoffs when payments are late, PG&E’s customers sent a vote of no-confidence to the giant utility this week when they rejected the utility-sponsored Proposition 16.

Voters in counties served by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which spearheaded the measure to deter government-run power providers, rejected the measure by large margins while counties less familiar with the state’s largest electric utility supported it.

With the final tally in, Proposition 16 lost with 52.5% of voters opposed and 47.5% in favor. The measure would have made it difficult for local governments to start their own power agencies and for existing public power utilities to expand.

“They lost bigger in counties where they actually serve customers,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based ratepayer advocate. “It sort of highlights the corporate excess that PG&E is becoming known for.”

Such antipathy toward the utility, which serves 15 million customers in Northern and Central California, contrasts with its wider renown for forward thinking. The company has won national acclaim as a green utility willing to break ranks with other businesses and work with environmentalists to demand federal curbs on gases that produce climate change.

But in both the liberal and conservative regions it serves, PG&E has been viewed at times as a bully. Its strident opposition to a nonprofit power agency in Marin County sparked a rare rebuke from the California Public Utilities Commission, and the utility enraged customers in the Central Valley by installing so-called smart meters that produced higher bills.

Voters in PG&E territory in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno, Merced, Placer and Sacramento counties opposed Proposition 16 by large margins, while those who receive power from other sources in San Diego, Riverside, Ventura and Orange counties supported the measure.

Chris Davis, 45, who opposed Proposition 16, said she was still livid about the rolling blackouts a few years back.

“PG&E is a force for evil,” the San Francisco graduate student said. “I bundle up. I wear three sweaters, two hats and do jumping jacks before I will turn on the heat. I hate them. They are awful. And I’m a Buddhist. I don’t usually talk like this.”

Satisfaction with PG&E’s service also motivated some voters.

Stearns Ellis, 84, who has lived in San Francisco for 40 years, said PG&E has always responded to complaints about gas odors and furnace problems.

“I don’t think that if it were city-run, it would offer the same service,” Ellis said.

The San Francisco-based utility outspent its opponents 500 to 1 at a cost of about $25 a vote in an election with conditions that should have been ideal for a win. With heavily contested Republican races for governor and U.S. senator and no battles on the Democratic side, turnout was low and heavily Republican.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll, said he thought the measure had a good chance of winning. His organization had not polled voters on the measure.

“Voters were only getting information from TV that was paid for by one side, yet they still voted it down,” he said.

Opponents used Facebook, Twitter, e-mails and volunteer speakers at scores of civic meetings and media events to tell voters that Proposition 16 would reduce competition and keep rates high. Most California newspapers opposed the measure.

“It was huge,” said Gale Kaufman, a veteran Sacramento campaign consultant who advised opponents for free. “People developed their own ads, did their own videos. People were so angry. They spoke on every talk show they could get on.”

Opponents focused the debate on the pocketbook. A June 2008 study found that California’s extensive number of public power agencies provided cheaper electricity than the three major private utilities.

PG&E refused to comment Wednesday on why the measure lost heavily in its service area.

“Wherever they live, the voters have spoken,” the utility said in a written statement. “Moving forward, we will continue to focus on our customers, who have always been our No. 1 priority.”

Lifsher reported from Sacramento and Klein reported from San Francisco.

Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this report.