In mid-May when the Davis City Council voted 4-1 to kill the city’s exploration into public power, the most commonly cited evidence to support their decision was public opinion.
The issue was controversial for sure. The council spent $400,000 on studies and authorized another $600,000 to start to move toward an implementation process – if a Publicly Owned Utility was even viable. Given the city’s $5 million deficit, many questioned the wisdom of the exploration.
At the same time, the city figured out a fairly clever way to reduce the impact of the cost. The $400,000 came from the enterprise fund, as one of the chief savings for the city would be in the reduction of the electrical bill for running the city’s water plants. The city figured it could save 20% on electricity, which would actually annually exceed the one-time $600,000 cost.
To be fair, public opinion was not the only reason cited for pulling back. Councilmember Brett Lee was clearly frustrated at the lack of answers he got. Back in March he made it clear, saying, “I think before we agree to spend, or authorize to spend this fairly large amount of money we should at least be able to talk confidently about some actual real numbers. I’d like to talk to somebody about when they made the effort to go to a POU. We will likely end up in court and there will be legal cost involved. I don’t know whether this will be millions of dollars in legal fees or whether it will be 10s of millions in legal fees. I don’t know whether the journey is a 1 year journey or a 10 year journey.”
In May he would pound on Utility Manager Herb Niederberger, but never got the answers he wanted. So he asked for various community groups who support this effort to step forward and do some of the early, ground-laying work. He stated, “I’m not supportive of spending this money, I’m supportive of asking people to help volunteer to provide this information.”
However, public opinion was a clear driver. Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, for instance, noted that in every conversation he had with the public, the issue of the publicly owned utility came up. Councilmember Rochelle Swanson would add that this is the beauty of representative democracy, and that the council has to be flexible.
The problem is, if you believe the Godbe Poll that was just released – the council completely misread public opinion.
Godbe reports, “When the survey respondents were asked if they would support the City of Davis forming a municipal electric utility and purchasing PG&E’s distribution system, there were slightly more residents in favor of the idea. However, nearly one in five residents either did not know or had no answer for this question.”
The results are startling to those who believed they had a bead on public opinion. 46.5 percent of the public was supportive of the city forming a municipal electric utility while only 34.5 percent opposed it, with another 19% not knowing.
This is a clear-cut example where the council thinks that the input they are getting from the public is representative of the overall public’s view, when it was not. There was a vocal minority, probably at least in part spurned on by PG&E’s efforts to kill the POU attempt, that spoke out, but there was a larger proportion of the public that actually supported the project – not a majority, but a strong plurality.
There are several lessons that need to be learned here. The first lesson is the need for the city to have better public opinion assessment tools. Councilmember Swanson is correct that this is a representative democracy, but that representative democracy was responding to noise rather than actual public opinion.
Second, and related, the council has to stop responding to the loudest voice in the room or even in the community.
Third, and this was the problem from the start, the council needs to have a better way to do outreach with the public. Because, despite the public opinion polls, the city did a poor job of rolling out the POU discussion. By the time it had gone public, the issue was already framed by PG&E rather than the city.
We also should note that back in February there was a poll commissioned by the PG&E ally, IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), that found strikingly different findings: “A plurality of voters – 47% – said they would probably or definitely vote no on a ballot measure to create a new utility, with only 34% saying they would probably or definitely vote yes. Just over half of voters said they are not confident in the city of Davis’s ability to manage an electric utility.”
“Davis voters see through the false promises,” said Hunter Stern, Business Representative for IBEW 1245, which commissioned the poll. “Politicians promise green power at no greater cost. But voters understand that’s just empty rhetoric.”
The poll was taken in late February by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, a nationally respected firm, and was comprised of 400 telephone interviews with voters in the city of Davis.
“Davis deserves safe, reliable power that is truly green,” Mr. Stern said. “This plan is not it, and voters know it.”
The key findings in the poll were related in a polling memo which argued, “Voters are not confident that the City of Davis could do a better job, and perceive PG&E as both the better service and also more likely to achieve clean energy goals. When asked directly, a plurality of voters would oppose a City of Davis takeover of the electric utility, and anticipate that such a takeover would have a negative impact on the City budget, electricity rates, and service reliability.”
Key findings included: “A huge majority of voters are satisfied with the quality of service they receive from PG&E. Survey respondents were asked how satisfied they were with PG&E’s services as a gas and electric utility provider. Nine out of ten of voters (90%) say they are satisfied with the service they receive from the utility, with close to half (44%) saying they are ‘very’ satisfied.”
Second, they found, “PG&E’s reliability as a service provider stands out to almost all Davis voters. Respondents were asked to rate how satisfied they were with a series of specific services provided by PG&E.”
The memo continued, “A majority of voters are satisfied with all the specific services tested. Davis voters are particularly satisfied with PG&E’s reliability: 96 percent say they are satisfied, including close to two-thirds (65%) who say they are ‘very’ satisfied.”
Comparing that to the Godbe findings, you see that the city council was flying completely blind when it made the call back in May to kill the POU. Perhaps this will serve as a lesson for the future.
—David M. Greenwald reporting