Utilities suing to halt Prop. 16

A group of publicly owned power providers, including the Modesto Irrigation District, sued Thursday to stop a June ballot measure that could stymie their expansion.

The plaintiffs claim that state Proposition 16 purports to be about saving taxpayers money while hiding the fact that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. would benefit greatly from the measure.

"It's anti-competitive, anti-democratic and misleading in its entirety," said Dennis Herrera, city attorney for San Francisco, in a news release. "If our elections laws are to mean anything, the court must strike this deceptive amendment from the ballot."

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, asks Secretary of State Debra Bowen to disqualify it.

The measure would require a two-thirds vote of a public utility's residents before it could expand service in an area where it is not the exclusive provider. The same vote would be needed among residents of the area proposed for expansion.

Proponents of the measure say it would make local officials think twice before spending public money to create or expand publicly owned electricity systems.

PG&E, the main investor-owned utility in Northern California, is by far the largest funder of the campaign.

Yes-on-16 spokeswoman Robin Swanson said the official ballot arguments note PG&E's support for the measure, so the lawsuit is wrong to claim that the campaign is misleading.

PG&E's support also is mentioned on the homepage of the proponents' Web site,

"They have been upfront about why they support this," Swanson said.

She added that the lawsuit "is the perfect example of why we need to pass Proposition 16, because now public agencies are spending taxpayer money to block a vote of the people."

The plaintiffs complain that the initiative was circulated as the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act when it is ratepayers, not taxpayers, who fund power systems.

They also claim that the measure aims to keep them from providing cheaper power in areas where they and PG&E compete for customers.

The MID and PG&E provide power in Oakdale, Riverbank, Escalon and Ripon. District officials have said new homes in their core service area also could be affected, depending on how the ballot language is interpreted.

"We've joined with local governments and other publicly owned utilities from across California in this lawsuit to strike Proposition 16 from the June ballot because it's false and misleading," MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

The plaintiffs include the Merced Irrigation District, which has a small number of electricity customers, but not the Turlock Irrigation District.

Also suing are publicly owned utilities in San Francisco, Sacramento, Redding and Moreno Valley and Riverside County. San Francisco generates hydropower on the Tuolumne River but has few retail customers.

On the Net:

The full text of the lawsuit is at

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.