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The Northwest Examiner — Editor’s Turn
The NW Examiner is a free monthy newspaper available at most supermarkets and restaurants around NW Portland.

As regular readers know, I don’t normally address city, state or national issues unless there’s a specific tie-in to our neighborhood. We don’t need one more disconnected analysis of California’s gubernatorial race or the occupation in Iraq. If George W. were to walk down 23rd Avenue, of course, he would be fair game.

Portland General Electric sent a speaker to bash the public power initiative at last month’s meeting of the Nob Hill Business Association. Her arguments were annoyingly simplistic yet carefully crafted to exploit common naivete. She began her talk by walking to the wall and switching off the lights for a moment. This underscored her point that PGE can be counted to provide a reliable flow of electricity. The obvious implication was that a new People’s Utility District might not provide power every time you turn the switch. I think recent history suggests the reliability issue points in favor of public power, but documentation and reasoning had little to do with her pitch. If a focus group somewhere had suggested that people might be frightened by the unknowns of life without PGE, facts weren’t going to get in the way.

Her talk went on predictably until she wrapped up by characterizing the proponents of public power as “far-left Democrats” who are “anti-business.”

Whoa! That jerked my head back. Why is a utility company franchised to serve everyone name-calling citizens for their ideologies? Especially in the Pacific Northwest, where cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power was created by people—including some who were left-wing Democrats and a whole lot who didn’t trust private corporations to take care of the region’s power needs.

Later, I called the speaker, Judy Crafton of PGE’s lobbying department, and she, too, noticed a palpable shift in body language when she had described the other camp. She also revealed that she didn’t know there was a reporter in the room.

It’s not hard to figure out what was going on. Crafton knew she was speaking to a business group so she tailored her message to people assumed to scoff at liberals and those branded anti-business. How could she have known that Nob Hill Business Association meetings are attended by a broad spectrum of people, including a sizable non-profit contingent? I’m sure they even let a few Democrats into the room.

Of course, she could have avoided the pitfalls by appealing to reason, using fair arguments and showing a degree of respect for those who might disagree with her. But that’s not the PGE/Enron way of doing things. If they can gain a momentary advantage by exploiting people’s biases, telling different stories to different audiences, don’t expect scruples to get in the way.

PGE is, after all, the company that collected $570 million from ratepayers since 1997 under the guise of covering its federal income tax obligations. The feds never got their money. It went into the dark reaches of Enron’s corporate soul and never came out. If you or I tried to do something like that, we would end up behind bars.

PGE and its front group, Citizens Against the Government Takeover, would like us to believe that government cannot run a utility system. Yet People’s Utility Districts are flourishing all around the state. All 29 of them charged less per kilowatt hour in 2002 than did PGE, and some charged about half as much.

It’s true that the Portland Water Bureau lost about $30 million due to incompetent management of a computer billing system. But the people responsible weren’t lining their pockets with the dough, and the breakdown was in collecting too little—not too much--from customers. Compare that to the magnitude and motive of PGE/Enron’s misdeeds.

In her talk last month, Ms. Crafton tossed in a few references to another “layer of government.” It’s one of those phrases with heavily negative connotations and hardly an ounce of meaning. If a public utility system forms some kind of layer, wouldn’t PGE and its parent company count as two layers? Even now, with Enron in bankruptcy, Oregon ratepayers take the backseat while creditors with no accountability to our state get their share first. That’s a layer we could really do without.

I say, form the People’s Utility District. Save us from one more layer of corporate abuse.