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COURSEY: Feeling sorry for Goliath


Sebastopol's city leaders have taken on an almost impossible task: They're trying to make us feel sorry for PG&E.

At least that's how it seems. Meter readers are threatened with citations and fines for doing their jobs. The giant utility has been banned from installing any SmartMeters in the city even though only about 10 percent of Sebastopol's residents have opted not to have the devices.

It's come to the point that when PG&E flexes its muscles by shutting down utility work that the city actually wants it to do, an ordinary person is inclined to sympathize with the company.

This is all out of whack. PG&E is supposed to be the bully, not the victim. It's the company that turned Erin Brockovich into a hero, the company whose pipes blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno, the company that sends us a bill every month. It's the company whose executive in charge of the SmartMeter program was forced to resign two years ago after his clumsy attempt to infiltrate the anti-SmartMeter group's online community.

Who feels sorry for PG&E?

Well, maybe sorry is the wrong word. But geez, it's hard to stand with David against Goliath in this fight.

Sebastopol seems to be getting pulled around by the nose by a small group of anti-technology folks known as the Electromagnetic Field Safety Network. Based in Sebastopol, the group also successfully opposed a plan to bring free wireless internet service to the city's downtown. They cite "electrical sensitivity" and health problems that can be caused by radio frequencies used to transmit data from devices such as wireless routers, cell phones, laptop computers and, yes, SmartMeters.

And while groups such as the World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society say there's no evidence of such harm, the anti-techies don't buy it.

What began as a fringe complaint about SmartMeters spread across the state (fueled in part not by health concerns, but by inaccurate readings provided by the wireless devices), and PG&E eventually was forced to allow customers opposed to the devices to "opt out" of the SmartMeter program. Under the opt-out program, customers are allowed to keep their traditional meters for a one-time fee of $75 and a $10 monthly fee to cover the cost of having the meters read manually. Low-income customers pay a $10 setup fee and monthly charges of $5.

About 10 percent of PG&E's Sebastopol customers have chosen to opt out of the program. But that hasn't satisfied the anti-SmartMeter crowd. Last month, they convinced the City Council – on a unanimous vote – to adopt a moratorium on SmartMeter installation in the city, including a threat of a $500 fine for anyone caught installing them.

After a utility worker was confronted by a cop while working on a SmartMeter last week, PG&E shut down all utility work in the city – including work on the $23.5 million Barlow project, the city's largest development project in years. The company also has informed Sebastopol that it will challenge the moratorium in court. Meanwhile, city officials are meeting with company officials to discuss the impasse, according to Derek Moore's story on today's Page 1.

All of which has Sebastopol re-thinking its moratorium, which in turn has the anti-technology group turning up the pressure for the city to keep fighting the utility.

I'm all for standing up to bullies. But in this fight, I think the city's on the wrong side.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)