Tevlin: Utility debate brings together a varied new power elite

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2013 - 9:16 PM

It’s not often that the Minneapolis City Council gets to bring together a wide segment of society that includes everyone from Chamber of Commerce types to unions, to a man who said he “barely got by,” to the head of a nonprofit agency that serves the poor.

It’s also not often you can cause all those people to bring the love for … a utility company.

But that’s what happened last week at the hug fest for Xcel Energy in council chambers. They were all drawn to speak against the council’s move to explore taking over the city’s power at some point in the future.

By Friday, the author was backtracking from his resolution that would allow a referendum asking voters to consider a utility takeover. Tuesday, Council Member Cam Gordon was still unsure if he’d press a vote, given the breadth of questions in the community. But he still thinks it was “the right time” to bring up the issue during an election year.

The takeover notion was first brought to the city by a coalition of well-respected environmental groups. Although they didn’t make an impressive showing at the hearing, they are rightly concerned about the utility’s 100-year-hold on the city.

I’m not sure if the timing of the vote was intended as a sly threat to get a better deal with Xcel as its franchise agreement renewal with the city nears, or simply a political opportunity for the various candidates for City Council and mayor to up their green credentials by appearing to stand up to the big, bad utility company.

Either way, it backfired.

Well played, Minneapolis. Well played.

To be clear, it isn’t as though Minneapolis employees were ready to don hard hats and wrest control of the power grid any time soon. The city needs permission from voters to entertain the idea of running the lights itself. Doesn’t mean it will.

But the issue, coming on the heels of massive storms that knocked out power across the metro, created a public perception that any abrupt change would be about as welcome as a Sharknado.

Before the hearing, mayoral candidate Mark Andrew called the vote “reckless and irresponsible.”

On Tuesday, Andrew said he was “surprised by the depth of the reaction” to the idea. He’s hoping and guessing the council will table the idea so as “not to go into talks with a toxic atmosphere.”

I called my council member, Lisa Goodman, because she’s often a fan of the public voting on such issues. She plans to listen to both sides and make a decision, but is inclined to vote against a municipal utility (M.U.). Goodman points out that for Minneapolis to control utilities, the city “would have to buy the transmission, equipment and such from Xcel and then pay them lost profits for 20 years. This fact alone means we could not start an M.U.”

The city can’t take on that debt, she said, and she’s right.

Cam Winton, an independent mayoral candidate, had originally supported exploring a municipal energy company, then changed his mind.

It should be noted Andrew and Winton either do or did have Xcel as a client, and thus have some conflicts of interest. That doesn’t mean their positions are wrong.

Winton says looking into municipalization was a “well-intentioned” effort to expand renewable energy, as well as a “legitimate effort to try to develop leverage against Xcel.”

But Winton feels that “it did the opposite.”

“The move was never credible,” he said, “and to be leverage, it has to be a credible option.”

But as he talked to businesses worried about the uncertainty it would create, he grew wary. He also detected a bit of “good, old-fashioned pandering to the base” in the maneuver.

Gordon believes calling for a vote has already pushed Xcel to create a better dialogue with environmental groups.

The Committee of the Whole is expected to vote Aug. 15 on Gordon’s resolutions, should he decide to offer them. I hope he does because then we’ll know which mayoral candidates on the council have thought this thing through.

“I think all the candidates should be pressed” on how to better manage utilities and expand renewable energy, Gordon said.

But “there are lot of questions and maybe it’s better to bring it back next year.”

So, to all the concerned gas and electric people, business owners, nonprofits, unions and assorted other worry warts who jammed the hearing last week, the city might just end up saying this about all the hubbub:

Never mind, at least for now.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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