Power Outage
by Walt Shepperd - Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
Public power was once an issue in mayoral elections past

(Feature Photo: Tom Magnarelli, Cusetonight.com)

The question most often encountered by Howie Hawkins as he knocked on prospective voters’ doors ask for support in his bid for the Common Council seat in the 4th District in the November election, was, “Why aren’t you running for mayor?”

The answer, in part, was that he thought he could beat first-term incumbent Khalid Bey, against whom he had polled 48 percent of the votes two years before. And he has a growing feeling that his Green Party, to gain “political respectability,” has to win a race after decades of campaigning.

Khalid Bey Power OutageMotivation for the question on the voters’ part stemmed partly from memories of Hawkins’ participation in myriad debates during the mayoral campaign of 2005, especially his articulate, animated and unrelenting raising of the issue of public power: municipal ownership and operation of utilities in the city. His presentations then seemed so logical that his rivals, Republican Joanie Mahoney and Democrat Matt Driscoll, the incumbent by appointment, both agreed that the possibility was worth investigating.

“As I recall,” Driscoll says now, “when the issue was raised, I invited the advocates in to meet with me and my staff to hear them out.”

“2005 was when the issue caught hold,” Hawkins observes. “We had a rate shock, and Solvay {with municipal ownership} was paying one-quarter of what we were. There are now over 2,000 municipalities across the country with public power. They pay less because they don’t have to pay shareholders, and the management gets civil service salaries. I’ve been raising the issue since I first ran for office in 1993.”

Hawkins recalls the meeting with Driscoll, followed by a Common Council authorization for money to do a feasibility study.

“Unfortunately,” Hawkins says, “the vendor had three approaches to choose from, and it became clear that Mayor Driscoll was trying to influence the vendor, who was trying to figure out who they were working for.” At that point, the Common Council rescinded support for the study.

A Public Power Coalition kept the issue alive until 2009, when a mayoral debate on the issue found the candidates generally ignorant of the details involved. With no mayoral debates in the most recent election, public power barely got a mention. But it might not have surfaced even if debates had been held.

“My understanding from the folks on our team this year,” says Green Party mayoral candidate Kevin Bott, “was that our issues are so dire right now in the city with regard to joblessness, poverty and the economy that {the public power issue} wasn’t going to resonate the same way with voters.”

Andrew MaxwellAccording to Andrew Maxwell, director of planning and sustainability, Mayor Stephanie Miner’s administration has no position on the issue. “We’ve seen models that work in other parts of the state and country,” he says. “It warrants further study, and we’re open to anything that improves the environment.”

As Maxwell recalls the feasibility study Driscoll called for, the financial model proved dysfunctional. “But I wouldn’t take that study as gospel,” he adds.

Ironically, National Grid takes no position on public power, either. “We don’t have a statement on the feasibility,” says Virginia Meniadis, of the corporation’s media relations department. “With our offerings to industrial customers of energy efficiency and economic development, in terms of National Grid, we are what we are.”

Even more important, Hawkins maintains, is the need to achieve “clean energy” to avoid an increase in global warming. He plans to raise the issue, with a strategy for statewide implementation, in a campaign for governor next year, which the Green supporters are lobbying him to make.