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Public power player divines hard market

Advocate for 114 regional utilities tackles energy puzzles

Starting with the frowzy stuffed deer head that she bagged at a yard sale, there are several clues in Jerry Leone's spacious corner office that suggest here is someone who isn't your standard chief executive.

The impression is confirmed when a Portland Tribune photographer arrives to take her picture. 'Tell him I've gone to Siberia and won't be back for 10 years,' she growls to her administrative assistant.

C. Clark Leone is her given name, although no one calls her anything but Jerry. As manager of the Portland-based Public Power Council Ñ 'not CEO, president, empress or anything else, just plain manager' Ñ she heads an organization that advocates for the interests of 114 consumer-owned utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Leone runs the council at one of the most sensitive times in its historyÊÑÊwhen public power is faced with rising costs, more competition for energy and uncertainty about the future of Portland General Electric.

One of the region's major investor-owned power players, PGE potentially could be transformed into another member of Leone's flock if Multnomah County voters agree to create a people's utility district, or PUD, in November.

Leone spends long hours working Ñ with the aid of a nine-member staff Ñ to advance the cause of public power while monitoring the moves of the Bonneville Power Administration, the big federal energy-marketing agency.

Members of the 37-year-old power council include all but 16 of the region's publicly owned utilities and range from cooperatives ÑÊprivate, not-for-profit corporations ÑÊto public and PUDs and municipal utilities, all quasi-governmental bodies.

Alan Zelenka, resources manager for the Emerald PUD in Lane County and a member of the power council's board of directors, calls Leone 'the key go-to person when BPA, the investor-owned utilities, the direct service industries or the environmental community want to find out what public power has to say.'

Leading the council probably was easier for Leone's predecessors, Zelenka says, 'in the golden age, when things were cheap and costs were low.' Now, 'times are harder,' he says, 'and it's a tougher job for public power to hold on to the benefits it has, and to keep costs down.'

For Leone and others, the cause of public power continues to shine. 'Public power people are still pretty idealistic. This is pure democracy in action, or the purest thing on the planet.'

Whether PUD, 'muni' or electric co-op, the public power utilities are linked by BPA's mandate, to give preference and priority to 'public bodies and cooperatives' when selling energy.

Leone, an attorney with an undergraduate degree in political theory from Scripps College, has managed the power council since 1994. Before that she worked for BPA as a rate lawyer and district manager.

Earlier, as an assistant attorney general, she was assigned to the Oregon Public Utility Commission. 'That's where I developed my obsession for utility law,' she says.

The council's member utilities vary wildly in size and assets. Some serve fewer than a thousand customers. The Snohomish PUD in Everett, Wash., by contrast, has 271,000 customers. Three other PUDs in Washington Ñ in Grant, Douglas and Chelan counties Ñ own dams on the Columbia River that generate enough electricity to put them in the power sales business.

Steve Loveland, general manager of the Springfield Utility Board and chairman of the council's board of directors, says Leone is 'exceptionally good' at listening to all the council's members.

In Washington, about 60 percent of the population is served by public power, whereas only about 25 percent of Oregonians are. That percentage could increase considerably, depending on the outcome of a controversial November ballot measure in Multnomah County, which will ask voters whether they want to create a PUD that would provide electricity to customers now served by PGE and PacifiCorp.

The power council board hasn't taken a stand on the formation of the new PUD. There could be a reason for that: In addition to boosting public power's stance in Oregon, it also could mean a big increase in competition for preference power from BPA.

Deregulation upsets market

Leone, who has an infectious laugh, is famously forthright. She once commented that a Northwest aluminum industry proposal for the allocation of BPA's power would mean that 'the voters of the region would take it in the shorts while the aluminum companies would laugh all the way to the bank.'

Emerald's Zelenka says he admires Leone's 'ability to be plain-spoken and tell it like it is. She has the ability to cut through all the gobbledygook and get to the issues.'

'What you see is what you get with her,' Loveland says. Her affinity for the cause of public power is particularly important these days, he adds, 'when a lot of the benefits have been taken away by administrative fiat by BPA and given to profit-making utilities.'

Leone, who's not averse to using four-letter words to advance a point, includes FERC ÑÊthe acronym for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ÑÊon her list of obscenities. 'It has encouraged the venal and the incompetents and the greedheads with its deregulation,' she says.

FERC 'has ruined the electric industry,' she charges. 'Utility stocks used to be widows' and orphans' stocks,' noted for their solid reliability. 'This was a stodgy, solid business that ran pretty darned well.'

Deregulation has created a world populated by 'the merry marketeers' ÑÊLeone's term for 'the Enrons of this world.'

In the hours outside work, Leone researches and writes a widely circulated, comprehensive report on deregulation, which she sends out weekly.

She says that deregulation 'is a huge factor in the economy of the U.S. being in the Dumpster. The impact on public power is wholesale rates that have gone up about 46 percent, and they're going to go up again.'

In the utility industry, Leone says, 'often there's a tendency to view what's happening today as what's happening for the next 100 years. Now, with deregulation, you don't even know what's going to happen next week.'