PUD proponents shocked by results

The push to create a Whidbey-based power company was largely rejected by voters, according to results from the Island County Auditor's Web site.

By 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the proposal was being defeated 15,045 to 7,554, with 6,500 votes left to count.

"I was licking my wounds last night," Dave Metheny, campaign director for "People for Yes on Whidbey PUD" said. "It's too bad, because Whidbey had an opportunity to point itself to the future, in respect to its energy system, but the forces of the status quo were very powerful and had a deeply vested interest to keep things the same."

"People for Yes" began their campaign in May to take over Puget Sound Energy's island facilities. The uprising sparked when the company announced the proposed sale of PSE to foreign investors, the Macquarie Bank of Australia. PUD campaigners promised a public utility district would deliver lower rates and greater reliability.

The Washington Public Utility District Association (WPUDA) contributed funds and services to the new campaign, along with funding for power grabs in Skagit and Jefferson Counties.

PSE countered with a fierce public relations campaign, and nearly $300,000 in financing, according to records filed with the Public Disclosure Commission. "People for Yes" raised about $21,000.

"I think we could've made up for the disparity by starting a year earlier," Metheny said. "We would've had a better campaign structure, gotten more folks involved and found someone who knows more about fundraising. I was uncomfortable asking for money."

Gretchen Aliabadi, a PSE spokesperson, said that until all votes are counted, she remains cautiously optimistic.

She said the enormity of "People for Yes's" proposal to purchase PSE's system by 2008 may have turned off voters. Money could be invested in other areas.

"There were also a lot of questions, such as 'Where would you get the money?' and 'Would there be improvement?,' Aliabadi said. "We never saw how they would make this a gold-plated system."

WPUDA spokespersons say the PUD measure in Jefferson County, which is currently at 53 percent "yes", is expected to pass because of the PUD's legitimacy in the community.

Jefferson began the campaign four years ago, and previously established a PUD for water and sewer.

"The fact that voters in Skagit and Jefferson already had operating PUDs and understood the concept and how local control works, they were probably more comfortable with the idea," Dean Boyer, spokesperson for WPUDA said. "Whereas on Whidbey, there had to be a lot of education on how public utilities work and how the power would work."

Despite an impeding loss, Metheny said "People for Yes" is already considering a campaign for 2010.

"It was funny, I talked to people today and they're all gung-ho. They said, 'Let's reload, we'll get this next time, this was an educational go round," he said.

Boyer said the issue will continue to resurface in Island County, if PSE doesn't follow through with their promise to improve.

"A long time ago, Franklin Roosevelt referred to PUD's as a birch rod in a cabinet that is pulled out when power utilities don't meet the public's expectations. That's what happened here. People organized and campaigned. It's up to PSE if this happens again," he said.

Recently, PSE opened customer service offices in Freeland and Jefferson County. Aliabadi said PSE hopes to form a neighborly dialogue with their customers.

"If we could take one thing away from our eight month dialogue with the community, it is that we need to get back into our local communities," Aliabadi said. "We will take steps forward. Will we be perfect? No. But we will listen."

Had voters approved the measure, a PUD would've been authorized to instate a property tax for a cost study of PSE assets. PUD commissioners from three districts (north, central and south) would have been elected.

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