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PSE-funded group continues anti-PUD campaign on island

On the heels of the controversial yard-sign campaign by the Puget Sound Energy-funded “Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy,” the group is revving up its anti-PUD campaign on the island with a mailer and newspaper ads.

Last weekend, island residents found a flyer from the political committee that is the brainchild of the political strategist firm Strategies 360.

“Don’t give Whidbey PUD a blank check,” warned the flyer.

The mass mailing comes only four weeks after a much criticized yard sign campaign, when dozens of anti-PUD signs were placed on public and private property without permission.

The mailer takes issue with the taxing authority that the public utility district commissioners would control if the measure is approved in November, as well as their power to vote on rate increases without a new vote by the public.

It also pushes the notion that a publicly-owned utility would be a government agency, because it would be run by elected officials.

Dave Metheny, campaign director of “People For Yes on Whidbey PUD,” said the mailer is just another cheap shot at the movement to create a Whidbey-based power company.

“This is not a blank check,” Metheny said. “With the PUD, there are checks, but it’s checks and balances.”

He added that all meetings and records would be open to the public and every major decision would be accompanied by hearings and public input.

“The process is more open than Puget Sound Energy’s,” he said.

Metheny complained that the flyer is trying to evoke fear of a government-run utility.

“It will not be run by anybody but the PUD and its commissioners. County government, other government, is not involved,” he said.

Metheny explained that the PUD would be run by a general manager, who will be hired by the three elected commissioners.

He also said the flyer is an example of Puget Sound Energy’s strategy to spread fear and confusion.

“They’re saying the PUD is going to raise taxes and rates. But Puget Sound Energy has raised its rates seven times in recent years. Ask them what’s going to happen to their rates. They haven’t answered,” he said.

An added insult, Metheny said, is that “Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy” changed its color scheme for the mailer to bright green — also the color scheme of “People For Yes.” During the much criticized yard-sign campaign, the signs were red.

“After the yard-sign fiasco, they changed their look,” he said.

“Why is Puget Sound Energy hiding behind a political mercenary firm like Strategies 360? What is the nature of their relationship and who is calling the shots? It seems as though Puget Sound Energy is incapable of handling their own battle over Whidbey Island citizens’ use of their statutorily granted right of petition and ballot initiative.”

Also, the color scheme suggests that “Whidbey Consumers”/Puget Sound Energy is environmentally “green”-minded.

“I’m glad they’ve invested in green energy. But it’s only 1 percent of their output. If you look at their carbon footprint, 37 percent of their output comes from coal plants,” he said.

Metheny said that residents of Whidbey shouldn’t expect a mailer from “People For Yes.”

“We can’t afford something like this,” he said.

Instead, the group will pour its energy and volunteer power into educating voters — mainly in Oak Harbor, Metheny said.

Until Election Day, “People For Yes” will hold three more forums at Skagit Valley College in Oak Harbor Sept. 30, Oct. 13 and Oct. 27. Representatives of the PUD measure will also appear at various forums organized by the League of Women Voters.

Meanwhile, “Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy” is drumming up support against the measure on the island, said Karen Waters of Strategies 360.

Local opponents to the PUD idea are starting to speak out.

The Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce took a stance against the proposed PUD in its September newsletter. The board of directors voted to endorse “no on PUD.”

“The board’s position was that at this stage the PUD proposal is too risky for business, especially given our current economy,” the newsletter said. “Although PUDs may be appropriate in some areas, or were appropriate in the past, the cost associated with the creation of a PUD, the taxing authority awarded to the PUD commissioners, and the overall lack of facts surrounding the plan are key reasons for the board’s decision and it’s strong recommendation to our businesses to vote no on this issue.”

One of the South End people who has been in contact with them is EC “Duffy” Schoeler, a Scatchet Head Water District commissioner.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Schoeler said earlier this week. “I do not like this PUD program.

“I’ve seen, through disaster, what it takes to restore service. They are not versed in any of this,” said Schoeler, who worked 40 years for a phone company and has been a water commissioner for 13 years.

He recalled a fire on Long Island when he worked for the phone company — 15 poles burned down, but he had access to resources, manpower and time-proven logistics. He added that a brand-new utility would lack such resources and the ability to respond.

“I don’t want any novices trying to restore power during a disaster,” he said.

Schoeler added that there are certain reliability issues that come with island life that neither Puget Sound Energy nor a PUD can fix at a reasonable cost.

“We’re on an island. On the South End, we’re the last ones on the line. There is nothing you can do about it,” he said.

Schoeler said he is concerned about the impact on property taxes and electric rates if a PUD takes over.

“Am I going to save $10 on a gamble? You don’t know what you get,” he said. “It scares me to death.”

“I’m 81 years old. By the time they save money, I’ll be in a box in the ground,” Schoeler added.

Metheny said pulling Schoeler — who is also featured on the “Whidbey Consumers for Affordable Energy” Web site — into the controversy is yet another low move by Strategies 360.

Metheny said that Schoeler is “politicking” while “on the job” as water commissioner, which is against state law. It’s a similar charge to what Puget Sound Energy had accused the Washington Public Utilities Association of in its complaint filed with the Public Disclosure Commission on Sept. 12.

However, under state law, public officials are allowed to speak out on ballot measures, as long as they don’t use public resources to take a stand on behalf of a campaign.

“I believe they would use the people on this island for just about anything,” Metheny said. “Maybe Puget Sound Energy did not inform Mr. Schoeler that this is not allowed by law: Government agencies and officials are not allowed to engage in political campaigns.

“Puget Sound Energy and its political mercenaries should know better than this,” Metheny added. “They have an army of seasoned attorneys, public-relations specialists, and political operatives who are paid very well to know and apply the laws to their political campaign strategy. Perhaps they should contact the Public Disclosure Commission to report their transgressions.”

In the meantime, the complaint against the Washington Public Utilities Association is making its way through the review process.

“When we receive a complaint we make sure we have jurisdiction and enough evidence. Then it’s assigned to a staff person. That can take three to four months,” said Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission.

“At this point I can’t tell you if it will be done before the election,” she added.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or mmarxwheatley@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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