Public Power, Thurston Chamber and Our Community

[Note: The article reproduced here originally appeared on the website for K Records, the legendary label owned by author, artist, producer, entrepreneur and man-about-town, Calvin Johnson.]

October 4, 2012 – Calvin Johnson, K Records

An article in the local newspaper announcing the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce has decided to oppose Thurston County Proposition No. 1 on the November ballot is of interest; I’m a member of the Chamber, and I’m very excited about Proposition No. 1, which will authorize the Thurston County Public Utility District (PUD) to generate and sell electricity. Thurston PUD is a water utility; it requires a county-wide vote for them to add electricity. Most Thurston County rate-payers purchase their electricity from Puget Sound Energy (PSE), owned by a consortium of International financiers. It would be very satisfying for all involved for these customers to be served by a local utility that answers to the Thurston County community.

I joined the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce because K is a small business that has been located in downtown Olympia since 1982. In their introductory “YouTube” video the Thurston Chamber states “Our mission is to build community prosperity through a unified voice to support free enterprise.” Community is a big reason why I love living in Thurston County. The people who reside here are committed to being here, to making it a great place to work and live.

A strong local economy is a hidden force behind this sense of community, people here are particularly proud and eager to support local businesses, part of what makes Olympia and Thurston County thrive. The downtown hardware store Olympia Supply has a placard hanging behind their cash register that says “The Good News: ‘A dollar spent at a locally owned store is usually spent 6 to 15 times before it leaves the community. From $1.00 you create $5.00 to $14.00 in value within that community.’ The Bad News: ‘Spend $1.00 at a national chain store, and 80% of it leaves town immediately.’ Thank you for supporting local businesses and contributing to a sustainable economy within our community!” In this scenario the corporate chain store as more of an invasive species than a productive member of the community.

There is more to life than earning a dollar. A symbiotic relationship exists between these local establishments and not-for-profit businesses like the Washington Center for the Performing Arts and Olympia Farmer’s Market that drives the livability factor of the region. The public sector services we all enjoy are another hidden force that sustains our way of life. We take it for granted that a clean, abundant and reliable water supply is part of living in Thurston County (thanks, Thurston PUD!). There are parts of the world (including many areas in the U.S.) where the water supply is in private hands and local residents have no say in the price and availability of a necessity that is being treated as a commodity. Some things were never meant to be privatized.

Because the newspaper article was brief I visited the Thurston Chamber of Commerce website to seek further information. There was nothing on the website about the Chamber‘s decision to oppose Thurston County Proposition No. 1 (there still isn’t). A telephone call to their office elicited reassurances that it must be on there somewhere but after a few minutes the representative answering the telephone couldn’t find it and seemed as puzzled as I was that there was no mention of the Chamber‘s position on their website. After a brief exchange of emails and a couple telephone calls later, Chamber President David Schaffert forwarded me a document entitled “PUD Chamber Board Position”.

The most important economic decision facing local voters in recent memory is summarized in “PUD Chamber Board Position”, a single page, double spaced document that reads more like a press release (Thurston Chamber Opposes Proposition) than a Position Paper (a careful weighing of the issues from the perspective of the Chamber‘s priorities). It is unclear what criteria the Chamber used to make this decision. The document states “During deliberation the Chamber looked at 1) predictability, 2) oversight, 3) financial control and 4) employment.” There is no definition of “predictability” and “oversight”, or what the Chamber would find an acceptable gauge. Without understanding what standards a utility (public or private) is being judged by, we do not know how to evaluate the options before us (Mr. Schaffert was unresponsive to my attempts to clarify the Chamber‘s position on this matter).

The document goes on to site the Chamber‘s concerns that led to their urging a “no” vote, but refuting their statements against Proposition No. 1 is too easy. “Other public power initiatives in Washington State have not resulted in savings or increased service levels to communities”. This is untrue. Every public electrical utility operating in Washington State have lower electrical rates than PSE. As for “service levels” available from a PUD v. PSE, after last winter’s record storm, 95% of customers in adjoining counties served by a PUD for their electrical needs had power restored within 24 hours, while many Thurston County PSE customers were sitting in the dark for several days.

The Chamber says “PSE’s Green Power Initiative would be lost”. A quick peek at the Mason County PUD and Grays Harbor County PUD websites reveals they (and all Washington PUDs) are hip-deep in wind and solar power and conservation programs. If we lose PSE’s Green Power Initiative, we also lose their filthy coal-burning generation facilities.

Then there’s “PSE’s employment base would not be replaced”. According to the information about PUD electrification available at the League of Women Voters “Forum: Public v. Private Power”, PUDs go on a hiring spree of qualified workers for the administration and maintenance of their new facilities, hiring as many or more people in the local area.

Their next concern is “Predictability for the private sector would be reduced, impacting job creation”. What does that even mean?

In reviewing “PUD Chamber Board Position” one can’t help noticing the word “community” doesn’t appear until the bottom of the page where they lament with the passage of Proposition No. 1 “The community would lose a top corporate citizen”. The U.S. Supreme Court may have granted “personhood” to corporations with their Citizens United decision, but not citizenship (a status that implies a set of responsibilities many corporations may not find desirable or appealing). If this is their only concern for the community one wonders if the Thurston Chamber is really interested in “building community prosperity”, or just propping up a “top corporate citizen” that has worn out it’s welcome (see “invasive species”, above).

It’s sad, really. If “PUD Chamber Board Decision” was a concise, devastatingly articulate indictment of Proposition No. 1 as a flagrantly irresponsible pipe dream, it would be worth taking seriously. Instead it is as easily dismissed as a juvenile “flaming” of a rival suitor, with as little cohesion.

I am a small business owner concerned with building our local community infrastructure. In an election year where we face an important slate of federal (President, new congressional district), state (Governor, Attorney General) and local (hotly contested County Commissioner race) ballot issues, the Chamber has not taken a position on any of these topics. Why do they feel it necessary to single out Thurston County Proposition No. 1 for their confusing, half-A’ed attack? Having the Thurston PUD supply our electrical needs is another step towards local control and security. In the same way that our ability to provide our food supply from local sources is part of a larger national security issue, local control of our energy needs contributes to our national energy independence. Powerful communities are forged with cooperation and shared responsibility, not blatantly false scare tactics like those being used by PSE in their efforts to defeat Thurston County Proposition No. 1. In losing a “top corporate citizen” we gain a community partner dedicated to serving the best interest of our families and neighborhoods.