Sunday, August 14, 2005

PUD Campaign, June 02004-March 02005

By the time I got involved, the PUD campaign had been active for several months. It started as the Willamette Electric People's Utility District, an effort to create a publicly owned power utility in inner east Portland. For residents within the proposed district, this would replace their service by Portland General Electric (PGE), owned by Enron. The advantages to not having your power supplied by Enron are fairly obvious, but a previous county-wide effort to take control of the utility had been voted down in a campaign in which Enron and the other local private utility spent more than $3 million, 100 times the amount spent by the pro-PUD campaign. The lies backed by big money overcame common sense, but in inner east Portland where I live and where people are smarter about seeing through propaganda, 57% of voters favored the county-wide measure. So that's where the new, scaled-down campaign focused its efforts and outlined the proposed district.

The main reason I got involved with the campaign was the potential of the utility, in the hands of forward-thinking Portland residents, to implement serious conservation efforts and aggressively pursue renewable energy. At that point I hadn't really "gotten" Peal Oil yet, but I knew enough about energy to know that local control and local power generation are far superior to being at the mercy of giant corporations and power distribution over thousands of miles. An excellent bonus would be the creation of a stronger local economy via cheaper electric rates than PGE/Enron, and keeping more money here instead of siphoning it off to, say, Texas. Once the PUD had been established and proven to have lower rates and equal reliability, it could easily spread to bring in other areas of Portland, or act as a model for other neighborhoods to start their own PUDs, snowballing the local benefits.

As with the Kucinich campaign, I joined the PUD campaign to help with tech stuff, initially helping with a website redesign and implementing a web interface for the voter database. I adapted the Kucinich voter database and some of the canvassing list programs for PUD purposes, which worked well. As time went on, I got more involved in other aspects of the campaign, from tabling at street fairs to on-the-ground canvassing (ACK!) to writing fundraising letters and doing follow-up calls (ACK ACK!) to volunteer coordination (ACK ACK ACK!) As with the Kucinich campaign, pushing myself further into uncomfortable territory was difficult but possible with the worthy goal of establishing a PUD, and it helped me grow a bit too. Theressa had joined with the campaign as the same time I did, and focused her efforts on events and fundraising, helping with a reasonably profitable auction and almost single-handedly coordinating two successful pancake breakfasts. We worked together a lot, supporting each other in the different projects we'd taken on.

The campaign hit a major legal snag as PGE/Enron supporters filed a bogus lawsuit. Unfortunately, the defendent was Multnomah County, which had seemed resistant to the PUD from the start. Neither the county attorney nor the plaintiffs bothered to let us know that the court date was fast-tracked to one week after the filing, so the PGE/Enron lawyer showed up with his well-prepared, presumably eloquent arguments, the county attorney stood up and essentially said "We have no position on this matter," and the judge didn't hear from anyone who actually wanted to defend the PUD. We hired an attorney and tried to undo the damage but hit other legal blocks, ran out of volunteer energy, and went dormant as the City of Portland stepped up to actively implement its plan to purchase PGE from Enron and run the entire area (as opposed to just our small patch in inner east Portland).

As it stands now, Enron has refused an offer from the city which is higher than that they'd accepted from the Texas Pacific Group, another Texas rape-and-pillage corporation. (Fortunately, earlier this year the Oregon Puclic Utility Commission broke from their pattern of public neglect and blocked the sale which would have sucked $800 million to $1.2 billion from us in five years.) The last big hope is that the city will have the guts to condemn PGE's assets, which would be much uglier than an outright purchase. If that fails, the Central Portland PUD will be the only hope to salvage any of PGE.

It's been fascinating watching how fully corrupted our election system is even in Portland, and how badly the justice system failed even to uphold the letter of the law, let alone act for the good of the people. It was also educational, though disappointing, to see many of the same problems we experienced trying to generate and harness volunteer energy in the Kucinich campaign replicated in the PUD campaign. It again came down to a small handful of people trying to do almost everything, which is unsustainable and risks burnout. It's hard to say at this point whether or not the campaign was worth the energy I put into it; I certainly learned a lot, pushed myself into new territory, got to experience consensus decision making for the first time, and made some more good contacts with local people. However, with the PUD campaign stalled and city condemnation even more of an uphill battle, it's hard to feel that the energy and time was well spent, especially in contrast to the Kucinich campaign which. Although both campaigns failed in their primary objectives, it was much more fulfilling to pour everything I had into what I saw as literally the most important thing in the world...the question of how the electric power for 30,000 people will be generated and distributed is important but not quite in the same class! Live and learn.

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