Hostilities elsewhere

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s governing board this morning convened in an open-air garage behind the district’s Manteca offices a public hearing at which it voted unanimously to try again its failed bid to oust Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and to take over the electricity market in and around Manteca, Escalon and Ripon. For a district attempting to frame its battle with PG&E as one between local farmers and big city suits – the garage, district General Manager Jeff Shields remarked, is not “the 53rd floor of a corporate high rise” in San Francisco – the location was wisely chosen (The district said the meeting was held outside because the board room was too small to accommodate the crowd).

Press releases from both sides followed. So did a posting on the Web site of Citizens to Stop the Power Grab, a local group financed in part by PG&E. It referred to “a huge show of community opposition,” which was a mischaracterization. Whether people at large support a takeover is unclear, but those in attendance this morning were predominately for it.

The irrigation district’s campaign may fail. It did in 2006 before the Local Agency Formation Commission and after that in court. But the district has two important things going for it that then-Mayor Ed Chavez did not have when he proposed last year a similar, now-abandoned takeover try in Stockton: First, residents appear to have some faith in the district board (Ripon farmer Matt Visser, for example, said this morning that his family has been with the district for 90 years and that, “I just have full confidence in this board.”); second, the district has piles of money (It had some $50 million in reserves at the end of 2008, enough to solve Stockton’s $31 million budget problem and then some).

On hand to make PG&E’s case this morning was the utility giant’s Emily Barnett, whose address was brief and by PG&E standards relatively subdued. She warned the board to “learn from your past mistakes” and promised a lengthy court battle “at substantial public expense.” She did not “(get) hostile” when taking an additional minute after being advised of the time (a common occurrence at public meetings).

Perhaps Irrigation Director John Holbrook, who made that accusation, was looking for an opportunity to riff on one of PG&E’s favorite lines – that such takeover attempts are “hostile.” The hostility tends to come from both sides.

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