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