Analysis: Did Council Overreact When They Killed the POU?


public-powerIn 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


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 thoughts on “Analysis: Did Council Overreact When They Killed the POU?”

  1. ryankelly

    This is a huge opportunity to rid ourselves of PG&E – a company that is more beholden to shareholders than the communities that it serves. The fact that local efforts to create sources of renewable energy is being used for the benefit of other communities than Davis illustrates this.

      1. Matt Williams

        “I take it you intend to make the new CoD Power Co. responsible for gas infrastructure as well?”

        Not a good idea in this county where there are no local sources of renewable natural gas.

        Local sources of renewable electrical energy make that a very different proposition.

  2. realchangz

    Clearly there is an interest in continued exploration of alternatives for community energy needs. Perhaps it is a task for a community-level group with the understanding of a multi-year process and periodic check-ins with appropriate commissions and council.

    It’s very frustrating, indeed, but the years of putting off any serious attention to the revenue side of our fiscal model does have its costs. Sad to say, but our inability to afford the overhead necessary to execute on multiple, major initiatives is both a victim of our budget challenges as well as a cautionary reminder that we cannot bite off more than we can chew.

    At present, the plate is full – both for the council and staff. There is the very pressing matter of the budget deficit (which admittedly be helped by lower power costs), the need to find and settle a new city manager, ongoing labor negotiations and, perhaps most importantly, the challenges associated with growing and diversifying our local economy.

    As a reminder, we haven’t even felt the sting of the new water rates that are scheduled to kick-in over the next several years.

    Not to diminish the value of lower utility charges, but without reliable new sources of revenue to both community and our municipal services – everything else pales in comparison. The sooner we buckle down an address this issue, the sooner we can begin exploration of other priority initiatives for the community.

  3. Anon

    Again, IMO it is the poll that is in question. Look at how the question was asked. I think most citizens would be in favor of a POU from an ideal perspective. But ask them if they are willing to expend $1 million on exploration of the idea at a time when our city is in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and my guess is you won’t get much public support for the expenditure. The timing for a POU just was not right.

    1. Davis Progressive

      you’ve already framed it improperly. the city has already spent $400,000. so the question would have to access whether the voters are willing to borrow another $600,000, pay it back over ten years, in order to study the possibility of saving 20% not only on the city’s utility bill, but their own. what this poll shows is that contrary to the council’s perception, the water was not poisoned with regards to public opinion.

      1. Davis Progressive

        that doesn’t leave me with a lot of confidence. why not commission the public power experts who came to the council in march and april, who have expertise in this field with that?

        1. Matt Williams

          DP, have you checked out the credentials of the URAC members … particularly Bourne, Kristov, McCann and Braun?

          Ben Bourne
          Lorenzo Kristov
          Johannes Troost
          Elaine Roberts-Musser
          Greg Clumpner
          Frank Loge
          Richard McCann
          Gerald Braun (Alternate)

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