Letters in Support of Power Shutoff Were Drafted by SDGE - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Letters in Support of Power Shutoff Were Drafted by SDGE

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Public relations agents for San Diego Gas & Electric actually drafted letters from elected officials supporting a controversial plan to shut off electricity in the back country during heavy winds.

The San Diego Union-Tribune says the letters were signed by the mayors of El Cajon, La Mesa and Escondido, and three San Diego city council members. But the letters were composed and phrased by the company's public relations staff.

The letters urge approval of SDGE's controversial plan to shut off power to large swaths of rural areas of its San Diego and Orange counties service area when Santa Ana winds buffet the region. More than $900 million in damage claims have been filed against SDGE for causing the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires in 2007, which killed two people and took out 1,300 houses as it threatened to burn all the way to the ocean.

Two separate state investigations have found that arcing SDGE power lines either caused, or in combination with aerial cable TV wires partly caused those fires. On Friday, the utility agreed to pay the first $700 million in claims stemming from that disaster.

Campaign contributions from SDGE went to some of the elected officials who put their name on opinion documents secretly prepared by the utility, the Union-Tribune reported.

San Diego council member Ben Hueso's spokesperson said there was no linkage between SDGE campaign contributions and his decision to endorse the company's line. "Ben does a lot of things for a lot of people, whether or not they contribue to his campaign," said Hueso's spokeswoman, Michelle Ganon, in an intervioew with the newspaper. "Ben is an independent man."

El Cajon mayor Mark Lewis said past campaign dollars are not the reason he supported SDGE's controversial plan, and confirmed that the words he endorsed were composed by SDGE public affairs workers. "I agreed to it and that was it," he told the newspaper.

"I'm comfortable with it."

Not comfortable with it are back country fire districts, school districts and residents, who fear that the utility will black them out during critical fire weather, when wells and fire alarms are most-needed.

And the chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors said SDGE's practice of drafting opinion letters for politicians to sign, as if they composed it, is standard for the company.

"I'm not really shocked by any of this because of my experience with SDGE during Sunrise (Powerlink)," said Dianne Jacob, in an interview with the Union-Tribune. The utility wrote letters for politicians and community charities -- that it had supported with charitable donations -- who coincidentally wrote letters supporting the Sunrise project, a massive powerline linking San Diego with the Imperial Valley that was proposed to cross state parks and rural farms and ranches.

A spokeswoman for the utility, a division of San Diego-based Sempra, defended the practice of writing letters for elected officials and campaign donation recipients to sign. Stephanie Donovan told the Union Tribune that SDGE is "active in making sure that others in the community understand our positions."

As for the utility shutoff plan, it will be decided by the state Public Utilities Commission this summer.

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