Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 | A group of San Diego business and community members who fought for several months over San Diego Gas & Electric’s backcountry shut-off plan came to one small agreement Friday: California has budget problems.

The group arrived at that conclusion while meeting to select a mediation service that could help forge some consensus from their conflicting opinions. Some members doubt whether consensus is possible, but say they’re willing to talk about it.

The group unanimously selected Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service over a mediation service run by the California Public Utilities Commission. After hearing proposals last week, the group questioned whether the state service would always be available.

The federal service is “going to be with us through the entire process where the CPUC’s commitment is somewhat limited,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network.

In its presentation last week, the CPUC said its mediator could be limited in traveling to San Diego and it could guarantee services for only three to four months. The San Diego group expressed concern that future state budget cutbacks might impact the mediator’s ability to be around.

The group instead chose the federal service, which has an office in San Diego and would be available until the end of the process. The CPUC mediators could be used in a consulting capacity if necessary. It appears the meetings will be open to the public, but that point has not been entirely decided.

“We have an open and collaborative process and I think that’s the approach the group will take,” said J.C. Thomas, fire preparedness manager for SDG&E, who has been leading the initial meetings.

At the peak of its controversy, SDG&E’s proposed shut-off plan exposed a deep rift between the fire prevention interests of coastal and rural communities. It divided San Diego County politically, disrupting what some officials said had been a movement toward greater regional partnerships.

Then the CPUC rejected the shut-off plan in September, saying SDG&E failed to gather an appropriate level of community support. The commission told the utility to reassess its fire prevention strategy and include more “stakeholders” in the discussion. “Stakeholders” has translated into a group of people who were vocally involved in the shut-off plan debate and includes representatives from schools, water districts and cable companies. County Supervisor Dianne Jacob and State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth are the only elected officials to participate so far.

In two meetings since, the group has focused on setting a framework for future discussions. But they haven’t talked about the real reason they’re together: The shut-off plan itself.

The first meeting between SDG&E and the stakeholders left many participants uncertain about what they could accomplish together. That question still remains. But after the second meeting, participants were more optimistic that the process could lead to a joint fire safety proposal to the CPUC.

“That was incredible,” Thomas said after the group selected the federal mediation service in 30 minutes. “We’ve reached our first consensus, or actually our second, because we agreed to meet again today.”

The group reached consensus for a third time in selecting a third meeting date, Nov. 17. That meeting could be the first time stakeholders start talking about their primary concerns and interests and perhaps the shut-off plan.

The shut-off plan has remained on the sidelines while the group has started talking about analyzing the costs and benefits of different ways to improve fire safety. It’s unclear exactly what the group wants to study at this point. They could study the shut-off plan but may analyze other proposals.

“It’s going to be up to the group ultimately, but it’s going to be on fire safety,” Thomas said. “It may an issue of what elements are on the list.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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