PSE, PUD groups fight to the end

As election day draws near, the war between public power proponents and privately owned Puget Sound Energy continues to escalate.

A Sept. 12 complaint filed by Puget Sound Energy against an entity providing funds to supporters of a Whidbey-based public utility district is now under investigation.

PSE alleged the Washington Public Utilities District Association is a public agency and violated election law by funding a campaign to take over PSE’s territory in Island, Skagit and Jefferson counties.

“Public agencies are restricted from using public funding for or against ballot measures,” Gretchen Aliabadi, a PSE spokesperson, said.

A measure will appear on Whidbey’s ballot Nov. 4 for voters to decide whether or not to authorize a PUD. If it passes, PSE would eventually lose its business on Whidbey.

The Public Disclosure Commission responded to PSE with a letter Oct. 23.

“Following an initial review of whether WPUDA is the functional equivalent of a public agency, PDC staff has decided to open an investigation into your allegations,” wrote Philip Stutzman, the PDC director of compliance.

PSE lawyers argue the organization is a public agency because it serves a public purpose, is publicly funded and is run by government officials.

Dean Boyer, a spokesperson for WPUDA, said he expected the complaint to be dismissed before an investigation, because WPUDA is a private company.

“I’m a little surprised by this, but the claim is unsubstantiated,” Boyer said.

Allegations from PSE included Dave Metheny’s paid status. As head of the pro-PUD group on Whidbey, Metheny received $2,000 per month since June without disclosing it to the public or other campaign staff.

PSE also evidenced emails between Steve Johnson at WPUDA and a commissioner at the Skagit County PUD, from a public records request.

“An email on June 30th from Steve Johnson, executive director of WPUDA, asking Commissioner Robbie Robertson of Skagit PUD to speak with Commissioner Wayne King at Jefferson PUD because Mr. King is ‘all over the place’ on the electric authority issue. So if we could firm him up, that would be great,” a news release from Strategies 360, PSE’s campaign management, said.

Robertson said the emails were sent before Skagit PUD decided to place a measure on the ballot.

“Why they’re concerning themselves with emails that came before a decision was made, puzzles me,” Robertson said.

The Strategies 360 release alleged WPUDA was not behaving in a transparent fashion and “has not been playing fair.”

“WPUDA is at the hearts of all of these campaigns. Records show the WPUDA has talked with folks since January about getting the message out,” Aliabadi said.

WPUDA is an Olympia-based organization which represents 27 locally-owned utilities across the state. The WPUDA Web site said WPUDA officers, including the president, are publicly-elected PUD commissioners but Boyer said the organization overall is a private company. He said WPUDA registered as a trade group with the IRS.

Aliabadi gave credit to “People for Yes on Whidbey PUD” for openly reporting to the Public Disclosure Commission.

But the Skagit PUD will also be facing a PDC investigation, for allegedly using public facilities to produce a newsletter that promoted the upcoming ballot proposition. It was titled a “Voter’s Information Guide,” which PSE asserts was one-sided.

“Because voters expect to receive official ballot information from their local government, and this comes from a Skagit County governmental entity, unsuspecting voters may confuse this pro-Proposition 1 publication with an objective voter’s pamphlet,” a news release said.

Robertson said the Skagit PUD took the initiative to make sure the flyer was in compliance with PDC law. The mailer was viewed and approved by PDC before it was mailed.

“It was factual based, and did not promote one way or another,” Robertson said.

Recently, Metheny, the head of “People for Yes on Whidbey PUD,” fired back at PSE’s campaign for placing more signs illegally on highway right-of-ways, private property and power poles, after an initial signing blitz over Memorial Day weekend.

Metheny said his group has continued its fight, even in the face of PSE’s aggressive campaigning. He expects to be outspent 15 to 1. A recent PDC report estimated PSE contributed about $1 million to each of its anti-PUD campaigns.

“People for Yes” and other pro-PUD campaigns have made some headway, such as an Oct. 27 endorsement by the Seattle Times.

Robertson characterized the PSE campaign as one of disinformation, fear and doubt.

“From my understanding, Whidbey has one of the most diverse populations in the whole state. For groups to come together and for PSE to cast dispersion on them for exercising their constitutional rights is wrong,” Robertson said. “They are portraying PUD groups as country bumpkins who don’t know what they’re doing.”

Voters won’t know how the complaints are decided before they mark their ballots. The Public Disclosure Commission is expected to finish their investigation after the election. They will follow a list of criteria to determine if WPUDA is classified as a state agency. If the investigation finds in favor of PSE’s claims, the commission will hold a hearing and could impose a fine of $42,000.

Boyer of WPUDA stands by his company and dismissed PSE’s claims as a campaign smear.

“The PDC requested information from us and will look into it,” Boyer said. “We still think it will be dismissed.”

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