The county is on the hook for federal emergency debris flow costs, such as the Army Corps of Engineers dump trucks that cleared Riven Rock, and counts on recovering some of it in litigation against SoCal Edison. | Credit: Brandon Yadegari (file)

The County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to spend $825,000 more on outside legal experts to wage warfare with Southern California Edison, both for the power outages during high-risk fire weather and the Montecito debris flow. In the first instance, the California Public Utilities Commission is making rules to regulate the new regime of power shutoffs, and the county has hired law firm Goodin, MacBride, Squeri and Day to participate on its behalf. The second has the county doubling down on the Thomas Fire and Debris Flow litigation, increasing attorney firm Meyers Nave’s payment limit from $750,000 to $1.5 million. Supervisor Peter Adam dissented on both votes.

Adam — who sat alone at the dais in Santa Maria, participating by video — abstained from each vote, saying he found it humorous that the pot was calling the kettle black. “We are being critical of their maintenance,” he said. “We’ve got $70 million in deferred maintenance on our own assets.” He stated the best way forward was to ensure that the circumstances that led to the debris flow didn’t happen again. “And what do we do when they go bankrupt?” he asked. Pacific Gas & Electric, which supplies the North County with power, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in January.

Supporting Adam was Andy Caldwell, who is running for Congress and attends county supervisor meetings regularly for the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. Caldwell attacked the supervisors for “intellectual dishonesty”: “You want them to keep the power on, even if there’s a wind event,” he said, “but on the other hand you sued them for fires associated with a wind event.” He accused the county of “complicity with fires and debris flows,” saying, “You can’t have it both ways.”

Objecting to the label of intellectual dishonesty, Supervisor Gregg Hart argued that at the local level, the Community Choice energy model — in which ratepayers choose a renewable electricity source to boost local, green alternatives — countered years of wrong strategic decisions by the PUC and the utilities to centralize generators and bring the energy long distances. “Now we pay for power shutoffs,” Hart said, “and we pay for hardening of the power structure that perpetuates this problem far into the future.”

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino asked County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni about the clawbacks of money by the Army Corps and why it was necessary to sue Edison. The county’s financial damages were more than $100 million, Ghizzoni outlined, from the 50,000 truck trips to remove debris, emptying the debris basins, and so on. FEMA — whose help was a godsend after the disaster, Ghizzoni said — expected to be repaid after audits were finished in about six years’ time, which would leave the county liable to the federal government. After Hurricane Iniki, the State of Hawai’i owed FEMA millions for assistance, Ghizzoni explained. If the county did not sue for its damages, he said, the taxpayers would have to pay.

Some courts have ruled that damage payments are to be borne by utility shareholders, not ratepayers, Supervisor Joan Hartmann commented. She also noted that power lines are believed responsible for the Saddleridge Fire in the San Fernando Valley last week. “They say it will take 10 years to upgrade their infrastructure,” Hartmann said, “adding insulated lines and putting in metal poles. I would argue they could have foreseen that. They could have started 10 years ago.” If we just swallow what they’re telling us, she went on, “that’s not the kind of incentive that will encourage them to do better in the future.”


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