Bruce Brugmann's moment of glory

California's energy crisis is a long-awaited vindication for the feisty publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

By Anthony York
Published April 7, 2001 10:44PM (EDT)

For more than 30 years, the San Francisco Bay Guardian has been almost single-minded in its pursuit of bringing public power to San Francisco. For years, the weekly paper's iconoclastic publisher Bruce Brugmann has served as a left-coast Don Quixote, telling anyone who will listen about how Pacific Gas & Electric is ripping off the people of San Francisco. This tirade is as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, continuing uninterrupted week after week, ever since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

In a recent April Fools issue, his own paper even lampooned the publisher's single-minded zest for thumping PG&E, printing a flow chart spread across two pages that outlined a vast corporate conspiracy afoot in San Francisco. At the center was PG&E.

The crux of Brugmann's crusade is this: Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that San Francisco must have municipal power, the power generated by the city-owned dam, Hetch Hetchy, is controlled by PG&E. The utility sells the power, at a profit, to other cities around the state. Brugmann thinks that power should be controlled by a new municipal utility district, (MUD) and used to supply public power to San Francisco's residents and businesses.

It now looks as though the world is coming around to Brugmann. As California wrestles with its worsening power crisis, municipal power districts around the state such as Los Angeles and Sacramento have been spared many of the rolling blackouts the rest of the state has faced. They will also be spared the 47 percent rate hikes just approved by the state's Public Utilities Commission. Brugmann is a chief proponent of this fall's San Francisco ballot measure to create a local MUD. Similar movements toward public power are afoot in other cities across the state. Brugmann spoke to Salon via telephone Friday afternoon, shortly after PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection.

How do you sum up your reaction to the news that PG&E has declared bankruptcy?

We're the only city in the United States that is mandated by the Supreme Court to have public power, but we've allowed PG&E to influence City Hall and take over that power. Now there's going to be hell to pay on all fronts.

What kind of hell?

Now, [PG&E] will have to do a lot of filing under bankruptcy and open their books so we can find out how much profit they've been taking out of San Francisco all these years. Now, what's going to happen? Will the rates go up? The city needs to protect its own interests here. They can do a whole series of things to bring public power to San Francisco so we can begin to get safe, reliable and inexpensive public power. There is every possible reason for public power, particularly when San Francisco is required to have it.

This is an historic opportunity for the city. Nobody wants to come out against the [public power] initiative [on the November ballot] because it's the only reasonable thing out there. Nobody wants to be seen standing with PG&E now, but there are plenty of PG&E front groups out to undercut the [initiative]. The problem is, gosh, they didn't see that PG&E would declare bankruptcy. Now what are they going to do?

How does this moment feel for you, after all your years of campaigning for public power in San Francisco?

I'm delighted that the Bay Guardian's been on the right side all these years. The state now is finally paying attention but what they're doing is cosmetic. They don't want to make the move to take over the utilities. The utilities have gotten themselves into this mess. They wrote the deregulation bill. They created the mess they want to be bailed out of. No public power cities need to be bailed out ever.

Are there any more surprises waiting in the wings?

What people have to be scared of here is the bankruptcy referee saying the assets have to be sold off to Enron or some other private company. PG&E is supplying our private power. It goes to all San Francisco residents. A bankruptcy referee can take that asset -- that Hetch Hetchy power -- and order it sold to Enron or somebody else. So the city has got to get in here and protect itself. The cities that have public power are spared all this.

How do you assess Gov. Gray Davis' role in all this?

Gray Davis calls obliquely for a public power authority, but he doesn't really want to disturb the private power companies. He wants to do business with them. So first, we have to move into re-regulation. Then we can move into public power and make sure the state of California has public power like the state of Nebraska.

That's why we have this measure on the ballot in the fall. People now can vote for an alternative. They don't just have to jump up and down with a sign that says "public power now!" [The city of] Davis has made a move toward public power, but PG&E stopped it. Chico has made a move; so has Berkeley. There's moves all over. After this, after PG&E goes bankrupt and screws all their creditors, there's going to be movements for public power all over.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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