North Park Towers-6
A shadow of power lines along the alley behind North Park Towers / Photo by Ariana Drehsler for Voice of San Diego

It’s been nearly two years and the committee that’s supposed to act as a watchdog over San Diego Gas & Electric still hasn’t seated all of its members.

Members of the city of San Diego’s Franchise Compliance Review Committee also aren’t being held to the same vetting standard some city councilmembers initially asked for.

This comes at a time when SDG&E is under scrutiny from state auditors looking into what’s behind the company’s dramatically high energy rates. SDG&E has the highest per-kilowatt hour electric rate in the continental United States. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a federal inquiry into spiking natural gas rates and whether market manipulation or anticompetitive behavior is at play among utilities.

When the city of San Diego signed up for another 20 years with SDG&E under a renewed franchise fee contract in 2021, councilmembers established this compliance committee to keep tabs on whether the company was fulfilling its end of the bargain.

The city hasn’t had the easiest time tracking SDG&E’s costs and now its ratepayers are likely on the hook for a costly dispute over moving SDG&E’s equipment out of the way for the city’s own project. The compliance committee’s four members heard a presentation Monday about how the city and company will coordinate and share data about each other’s construction projects.

The mayor and city councilmembers nominate five residents to the committee and the Council signs off. The fifth seat is still vacant. Jay Powell, a longtime public power advocate who attended the committee’s second meeting of the year, questioned whether the committee is following its own rules.

“This is a substantial task the city is undertaking,” Powell said. “Is the city and Council even in compliance with its own franchise agreement?”

This compliance committee is temporary, set up every two years while San Diego conducts an independent audit of SDG&E’s performance. That means its members must be reappointed every two years as well.

It’s this committee that is ultimately charged with recommending whether the City Council should continue its relationship with SDG&E after the first decade of the contract is done, per a resolution of the City Council. That contract specifies the committee should have five members and no conflicts of interest. 

Initially three councilmembers who were outspoken skeptics of the contract called for an extra layer of scrutiny in the appointment of committee nominees. In a May 2021 press release, councilmembers Sean Elo-Rivera, Joe LaCava and Monica Montgomery Steppe requested they each have a public interview before the Environment Committee to ensure no conflicts of interest among the nominees. 

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera during a SANDAG Board of Directors meeting in downtown on Jan. 27, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

That didn’t happen. 

Instead nominees were approved by the full City Council under the city’s regular procedure for doing so, which asks nominees to self-disclose whether they have an affiliation or financial holdings that might present a conflict of interest. The resolution setting up the compliance committee doesn’t specify further how “conflict of interest” is defined in this case — but it presumably refers to any relationship between committee members and SDG&E. The franchise contract simply states “no nominee with a conflict of interest shall be appointed” to this committee.

LaCava, the current chair of the Council’s Environment committee, said in a statement Tuesday that the language calling for a separate vetting process didn’t make it into the final Council resolution creating it. It’s up to the mayor or councilmembers to vet their own appointees to boards and committees, according to city procedure, said Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office. The City Attorney’s Office can assist or advise in that vetting process if requested, but Wolf Branscomb said there were no such requests in this case.

In a separate statement, Elo-Rivera said “nominees to this and other city boards and commissions must attest to their not having potential conflicts of interest, agree to background checks, and consent to confidential financial inquiries. Such documents were made public on the City Council agenda, and I trust the nominees’ applications that were submitted to and approved by City Council.”

During the hearing for the latest compliance committee nominee in September, LaCava asked if Jared Quient, an attorney in the renewable energy industry, had any connection to SDG&E, adding it’s important the people on this committee are “completely objective.” Elo-Rivera responded it was his understanding Quient did not, based on conversations surrounding his nomination. There was no further discussion.

The compliance committee chair Jeff Kawar, a retired leader in the city’s Independent Budget Analyst office and one of Gloria’s appointees, said Monday that four members constituted a quorum. Brigette Browning, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, is Gloria’s other appointee. The other Council nominees include James Tomasulo, director of engineering at Helix Water District, and Quient.

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