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The Oregonian — Metro South News

PGE looking out for itself; county should do same

12/17/03

Tom Civiletti took the call in the kitchen of his Oak Grove home. He laughed at what he was hearing.

It was Tuesday afternoon, two days before Thanksgiving. Before the call, it'd been a pretty quiet week for the man who is heading efforts to offer Clackamas County voters the option of running a publicly owned, nonprofit power company.

Volunteers already had collected the thousands of signatures needed for a May election on forming a county people's utility district. Within a week, the signatures would be certified. It was a small step. But Civiletti, a quiet family man who works as a carpenter and stays active in county politics, is a big believer in the power of small steps.

Back in the 1980s, he was among homeowners in North Portland who worked with state and industry leaders to reduce odors wafting up from the industrial waterfront. That small victory taught Civiletti that "little people can make a difference."

But the Tuesday phone call was a reminder of what lies ahead. The call, from the Clackamas County commissioners' office, was to let Civiletti know that the commissioners had learned they could charge the public power petitioners for the May election. The election fee is typically charged to existing special districts in Oregon but not to those trying to form. But the commissioners were considering charging petitioners a $10,000 deposit when they turned in their signatures that Friday.

The commissioners had decided to allow the petitioners to weigh in on the matter at a Wednesday morning meeting before making a decision.

Civiletti immediately suspected that Portland General Electric officials were behind the sudden push for the county to collect the fee. "I laughed," he said, "simply because it's the sort of thing I expect from PGE."

Here's what happened. When Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall got to work Tuesday morning, some unsolicited advice from PGE was waiting for her.

PGE's community liaison in Clackamas County, Annette Mattson, had been thoughtful enough to e-mail Hall that the county could charge for the May election, but only if it demanded a deposit when the signatures were submitted.

In her e-mail Mattson wrote, "I am hoping Clackamas County will exercise their right to collect these funds. . . . Especially since this same kind of measure was defeated soundly in Multnomah County, at a cost of $300,000 to those taxpayers. Thank you for your consideration!"

At a contentious Wednesday morning meeting, commissioners decided against the fee after Larry Sowa and Martha Schrader agreed with concerns from Civiletti's group that it might limit the group's equal access to the election.

Still, Civiletti, a former head of Clackamas County Democrats who twice ran for the Legislature, losing by only 93 votes in 1998, knows what he's up against. Last month, more than 70 percent of voters rejected forming a public power district in Multnomah County after opponents spent $3 million to defeat it. And Civiletti knows the PGE e-mail is only the beginning.

PGE's Mattson did not return my call. Instead, PGE spokesman Scott Simms called to say the e-mail is an example of how PGE works closely with local officials to meet local needs.

If I worked for PGE, I might believe that explanation. That's not to say the folks at PGE are doing anything wrong -- they're not. They're simply watching out for their business, their revenue stream, their jobs.

Just don't confuse that with them watching out for what's best for Clackamas County residents. They're not. That's up to local voters, if they're willing to wrestle with this extremely complicated issue.

If you're a voter, you may not end up agreeing with Civiletti. But at least he's trying to give you the option.

It sure beats letting PGE make the decision for you.

Andy Parker's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Contact him at 503-294-5945 or at daparker[AT]news.oregonian.com. His columns and other local columnists of The Oregonian can be found online at www.oregonlive.com/columnists

 

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