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PG&E's Prop. 16 lost big in its service area

David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s unsuccessful, $46 million attempt to pass Proposition 16 on Tuesday failed to persuade the company's own customers.

The ballot measure, which would have limited the ability of local governments to enter the electricity business and compete with PG&E, fared best in parts of the state that aren't served by the company and worst in areas that are. California voters, overall, rejected the measure, with 52.5 percent siding against it.

Prop. 16's strongest showing came in Southern California, which gets its electricity from other utility companies. The measure fared worst in the Bay Area, PG&E's home. San Francisco, site of the company's headquarters, voted 67.8 percent against the measure. A majority of voters in every Bay Area county rejected the measure.

"It shows that the more people know about PG&E, the less popular it is," said Mark Toney, one of the leaders of the campaign against Prop. 16. "That's a problem for any company."

Toney and other opponents saw the defeat of both Prop. 16 and Prop. 17 as blows against corporate influence in politics. Prop. 17, funded largely by Mercury Insurance, would have let insurance companies award discounts to customers who maintain continuous coverage while raising rates for drivers who let their coverage lapse. Voters rejected it, 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent.

"It sends a message to corporate America that it doesn't matter how much money they put into this," said Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog group.

With Prop. 16, simmering controversies surrounding PG&E may have doomed the measure, controversies that have received little notice outside the region PG&E serves.

Customers and public officials have questioned the accuracy of PG&E's new SmartMeters, which the company is installing on every home and business in its vast territory. Rate increases drew angry protests last year from residents of California's sweltering Central Valley, who were hit hardest by the changes.

Voters in conservative Fresno and Kern counties, who rarely agree with the liberal Bay Area about anything, sided against Prop. 16.

"When does the Central Valley ever vote with the coast?" asked Bill McEwen, columnist for the Fresno Bee. "The SmartMeter thing really eroded the trust between PG&E and its customers."

The company also fought hard against the creation of Marin County's new public power agency, exactly the kind of agency that Prop. 16 was designed to address. The ballot measure would have forced local governments to win the approval of two-thirds of their voters before spending public money to start or join a public power agency. San Francisco officials, who are creating an agency similar to Marin's, spent the past week scrambling to assemble as much of their system as possible in advance of the vote, just in case Prop. 16 passed.

"It's nice to know there isn't this artificial grim reaper, namely PG&E, looking over our shoulder," said San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

The company issued a statement Wednesday saying that it would respect the will of the voters but still wanted public votes on public power projects. The type of public power agency San Francisco officials are trying to create, called a "community choice aggregation" system, does not require a full vote of the public.

"We will continue to work with our coalition partners to help ensure that the state's voters and retail electric consumers have a voice in the future if their local governments attempt to make far-reaching decisions to use public money or incur debt to enter the retail electricity business without a vote," said Greg Pruett, PG&E senior vice president for corporate affairs.

E-mail David R. Baker at dbaker@sfchronicle.com