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    PDX Public Power Effort Down, But Not Out

    The Green Zine, fall 2004

    ENRON still owns Portland's electric utility through Portland General Electric (PGE) and grassroots efforts to break the stranglehold showcase the lengths corpo­rate power is willing to go to maintain control over Portland's power grid. Last November, Multnomah County voters were given the option of creating a Peoples Utility District (PUD) as an alternative to corporate control. Using nearly three million dollars to promote a deceptive campaign (and outspending public power proponents 100 to 1), PGE managed to defeat the PUD effort. Shortly after the election, Texas Pacific Group (TPG) of Fort Worth, a private equity investment firm, expressed interest in buying PGE from Enron for 2.35 billion dollars. After reviewing TPG claims and seeing no reduction of rates or benefits, public power advocates began a campaign to create a PUD focusing on nine inner Southeast and Northeast neighborhoods where there is majority support for public power. A PUD can come into being when vot­ers agree to: (1) FormoaPUD., (2) Elect five P.U.D. directors, and (3) Invest 60 cents per $100,000 of assessed property value one time to pay for a formal engineer's report.

    In April 2004, organizers for the Willamette Electric People's Utility District (WEPUD) submitted enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot, but in early July a lawsuit was filed to halt the democratic process. Four businessmen, including one PGE employee, claimed the WEPUD violated the Oregon Constitution because it would be formed from "part of a municipality" rather than an entire municipality or county. On July 16, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Janice Wilson issued a permanent injunction and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs that a utility district including only a portion of a city is unconstitutional. In response to this ruling, attorney Tom Nelson, one of Oregon's top utility lawyers, filed motions on behalf of the WEPUD campaign in an effort to return the PDD vote to the November 2004 ballot. Nelson used to work for the law firm of Stoel Rives and represented Pacific Power, often against the interests of people's utility district . He now has his own law practice and explains his decision to represent the Willamette Electric PDD campaign, "My wife and I happen to live in the proposed district, and we believe that we should have the right to vote on this important issue. I've reviewed the potential economics for the PDD's customers, and they look quite attractive, particularly compared to some other proposals I've seen over time. PGE and Enron made some very bad decisions that we're all paying for today, and so I think that the voters deserve a chance to explore alternatives." Nelson asserts the judgment was invalid because the real party of the interest, the Willamette Electric P.D.D. campaign, was not involved with the proceedings. Multnomah County was the official defendant in the original lawsuit, not the WEPUD campaign, and Nelson claims Multnomah County Attorney Agnes Sowle hindered the WEPUD campaign's ability to present their argument when she didn't inform organizers of the unusually fast move to trial only one week after the lawsuit was filed. Despite the lack of opportunity for WEPUD campaigners to make their case in court, in August Judge Wilson denied the campaign's motion to intervene and declared the WEPUD campaign was required to intervene the one week before the expedited July 16 hearing. This ruling permanently removes the Willamette Electric P.U.D. from the November 2004 ballot. WEPUD campaign manager Jeff Cropp commented, "If we had been informed that this case was going to trial so quickly, we would have filed to intervene and presented a meaningful defense."

    The evidence to mount a compelling defense is substantial. Attorney Tom Nelson has done research on behalf of the WEPUD and refutes the merits of Judge Wilson's ruling. He notes that the Oregon legislature clearly authorized the formation of people's utility districts in ORS 261.110, which states: "People's utility districts may consist of territory, contiguous or otherwise, within one or more counties, and may consist of one or more cities, or a portion of a city, with or without unincorporated territory..."

    Serving as testament to this law is the Rockwood People's Utility District in east Multnomah County, a current example of a P.U.D. formed from parts of outer Southeast Portland and Gresham. The statement forbidding formation of people's utility districts from parts of
    municipalities was inserted by the 1931 legislature in direct contradiction to the ballot title of the 1930 initiative, which read: "To authorize creation of people's utility districts within and/or without municipalities to develop, dispose of and sell water, water power and electric energy." Not quite back at square one but certainly pushed back a fair way, the campaign for public power in Southeast Portland is currently gearing up to get on the May 2005 ballot. There are a few advantages to pursuing the May ballot over the November one. The new P.U.D. campaign will not have to compete with higher profile campaigns like the presidential and mayoral elections for money, volunteers, and other resources, and there are now six extra months to do networking and outreach. The campaign has already put together the primary infrastructure elements - task coordinators, a web site and volunteer lists, allowing the campaign to focus almost solely on grassroots mobilizing. And now the public power campaign will have the added support of thousands of district residents outraged by the spurious manner in which people were prevented from voting for the WEPUD this November. Watch for the new public power initiative on the ballot in the Spring of 2005.

    S.M.Berg is an activist, feminist and writer. in Portland

    For more information on the creation of a People's Utility District in Southeast Portland, please see www.wepud.org.

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    Published on: 2005-02-22 (5065 reads)

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