Making Democracy Work

1980's Narrated by Karen Wimpelberg

LWVNO HISTORY - 1980s by Karen Wimpelberg

New Orleans was like a lot of other places, around the country in the 1980s. It was convoluted with activists that had been very active in the `60s and `70s, but were, now, becoming more staid, developing families, and getting involved in the community. But they still, had those skills and that activist sense of heart.

The League got very interested in one or two issues at that time. And one of them was having to do with whether the city should buyout the utility and own it itself so it would be a publically owned utility. And that was becoming quite passť, at that time. The utilities, as a group, were, generally, pushing for them to be privately owned and just having themselves regulated, but being privately owned.

But buying out the utility was being discussed because the utility conglomerate serving New Orleans, called Middle South Utilities, had decided that it wanted to invest in a big power plant. It would provide power for the city of New Orleans as well as for the other areas it served, and Middle South Utilities wanted all of its areas to pay their equal share. It wanted the city to approve the building of a second tower at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station which was going to cost about a billion dollars, and our fair share of that would have been 29% of the cost. That would have brought us way more power than we could ever use. And it would have been very expensive for the average utility ratepayer. We were a very small city and very poor, 33% of our population was below the poverty level.

And the thing is, there had just been this terrible accident in 1979, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The nuclear power plant there had a meltdown, and people, who lived around there, were just petrified. There were many pictures in the paper of worried people waiting to get on buses, to be evacuated. Their faces were full of fear. It alerted the whole public to how terrible this accident was. And how scared people were, because they didn't understand how lethal the radiation might be. And they didn't understand where the evacuation routes were, or anything like that. So, that story was very much in the news, and it aggravated all the activists, especially the environmentalists. People went on the alert, when this whole idea of building a nuclear power plant, only 26 miles from New Orleans was proposed.

When activists started researching this. They found out that we already had three nuclear power plants, within the 26 miles. And they thought, why do we need another one, much less pay this enormous price for it. So, the issue became a citywide issue.

The League got involved in this because it was such a citywide issue, and this is what the League does. It saw that there had been a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the City Council, to look into the issue of whether to just buyout the utility serving New Orleans, New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated, or NOPSI, and avoid those higher utility costs, or just pay them.

The League decided to look into it, and it decided to have a study committee. The person asked to be the chairman of the study committee was Betty Wisdom, who had just stepped down from being president of the League. She agreed to take on the chairmanship of this very complex study. I had just been hired by her to be her assistant, so I got to be on the ground floor of a League study.

When Betty hired me, she said, "The only thing I require of you is to join the League of Women Voters," and I said, "Okay." And I never regretted it, for a moment. It was so interesting, all the time.

We had this terrific committee. Betty was the chair and the other members were old-time Leaguers, who had done many studies. I was mentored by them. It was a wonderful experience. My job was to write up the minutes of the committee meetings and interviews, to prepare agendas, and so forth. And then, be one of the people who went out to the units with the information that we collected.

I don't know if you know anything about how a League study works, but the point of it is to be completely non-partisan, and to study all sides of any issue, and to take the information to all the members of the League. We had a very large League, at that time, five to seven hundred people, and they lived all over the city. So we had to get our information out to that many people, and you did it by going to units. The league was divided into units, and the researchers, the study committee, take all the information out to the units, and it takes a long time, to do all that. It took us about 18 months to do this study.

One of the reasons it took so long is that we wanted to interview all the people who were important players. In our case, we interviewed people from the utility company. We had a NOPSI executive. We had a NOPSI employee. We had people from the City Council. We had people from the regulatory department of City Hall. We had the mayor. Each one of these people whom we interviewed was very important to the issue itself. We had professors from colleges around, who were economics professors, etc. We had them all come to Betty Wisdom's house, because she was somewhat, disabled.

I think they enjoyed getting away from their dull offices, because her house was so full of color, and very relaxed, and there were lots of cookies and tea, and they talked and talked. And every one of the people whom we interviewed, no matter which side of the issue he was on, said, without fail, "Have you interviewed Gary Groesh?" And we had not, because we'd never heard of him. So we put his name down and decided to call him last, since all of them were mentioning him.

We had to interview Gary on a Saturday, because he worked and wasn't be free during the week. And it was a terrible February day, rainy and cold, and the rest of the committee couldn't make it. It was just Betty and me. And Gary came with a friend, who was a physicist, who knew a lot about nuclear power plants and nuclear power. So it was the four of us sitting there, and the meeting lasted for four hours. Gary made a presentation to us, and everything he told us, he told us from both sides of the issue. Betty and I decided afterwards that he must have done his research on the League of Women Voters. He made sure that we understood both sides of the issue, and didn't, really push one side or the other.

We, of course, had been studying this for a long time, so we knew what the sides were saying, and Gary was right on. We decided that we had somebody we could turn to for advice, because his sources and facts seemed to be right along with what we'd been learning.

We discovered that the City Council had, actually, broken the law of the city. The New Orleans City Charter, which was written in 1922, stated that the City Council could not raise the rates of the utility, or raise costs of anything more than 2% without a vote of the public. And that was a very important point, because the cost of the nuclear power plant was going to raise rates more than 2% of the base rate. And the City Council had approved the Grand Gulf expansion without holding a public vote. It had not even held a public hearing. So, one of the things that we all agreed was that there should be a public hearing, and then another vote.

We also, found out that the City Charter required that the regulation of the utility had to be handled, by the City Council. But the utility wanted this regulation to be in the hands of the state's Public Service Commission. They had put that before the City Council, and the City Council had agreed to that, without any public hearing even. They actually signed away their power to regulate the utilities and seemed pretty happy about it. It was a big job to regulate a utility. Most people had no idea, when they ran for City Council, what it meant to regulate a utility, and that they were going to have to do that if they won. So, they were happy to let it go.

But the 1922 City Charter again protected the public. The City Council couldn't give away regulatory control, without a vote of the public. So we had two things that they couldn't do, without a vote of the pubic.

There's a rule in the League that you can't lobby or pursue a particular issue without a consensus, of the League members. The study committee was in a position of knowing all this, but not being able to do anything about it, like go speak at the City Council, or write a letter to the editor, or anything like that, until we had gone out to all the units, and determined if we had a consensus on whether the League should lobby or not.

We had to wait until our going around from unit to unit was done, and that took a lot of time. That added to that 18 months, because we only had unit meetings once a month. There were only four of us able to go out, and there was supposed to two of us at each unit meeting, so we could only do two a month, and it took a long time. We managed to get the information out to all the League members. But then, one member who was a NOPSI, the utility company, employee, pointed out to me that we couldn't have a consensus meeting, without advertising at least 30 days in advance. That was a rule of the League. I was new and I didn't know anything about that and nobody ever said anything about that to me.

So we had to put off having the meeting for a consensus vote for another whole month. And Betty Wisdom decided that we would do that in a different way. Betty decided that she would just rent a ballroom in a hotel, offer a light lunch, and get as many Leaguers as she could to come, and we would do the consensus as a body. So I set it up for her, and we all met. We had over a hundred League members in one room. Betty said, "Let's have a debate between a utility person and a City Council person, so that will remind everybody about what we've been telling them."

So we got Dottie Klise, the NOPSI employee who had pointed out to me that we hadn't advertised that we were going to do a consensus meeting, and we got Rod Baggert, who was a City Councilman at the time, and they debated. And then, we had a consensus-style discussion.

The New Orleans League came to a consensus that the city should buyout the utility in order to avoid the costs of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant. That proposal had been put in by Joel Myers at the last minute, using Robert's Rules of Order. Then, secondly, it was decided that the City Council should get regulatory control of the utility back in its own hands, so that we didn't lose control over what the utilities were doing to our city, in terms of raising rates. So, once those positions passed, the New Orleans League was free, then, to lobby.

Our League president, Carol Dunne, went on television, with a press conference. It was very exciting for women to see a women do a press conference in late 1984, or early 1985. She did the press conference and talked about the importance of keeping regulatory control in the hands of the city. And she talked about, from a women's point of view, the economics of not paying for Grand Gulf, as a small city with 33% poverty level, etc. We were very proud and very empowered by her speech.

While the League was doing this, Gary Groesh and a whole bunch of activists had been working on the City Councilmen, because they didn't have that rules that the League had and they didn't have to get a vote of their people to lobby. They kept working and having appointments with the City Council members, one by one, and they, eventually, had educated all of them about why it was important to keep regulatory control in the hands of the city.

When Gary's activists saw the press conference, they were very excited to have such a fine group as the League of Women Voters in support of their position, and we all started working together. They wanted us to help them educate the public on the importance of this, and then, work with them to get the City Council to agree to have another vote.

And the City Council did decree that there should be a public vote to get regulatory control back in our own hands, because they had, already, signed it away. This was the most exciting thing most of us had ever done, because it was a great, big, real, honest-to-goodness public vote.

But NOPSI, the utility, came along and said, "Oh, well, we'll pay for the cost of the election," which was about a $150,000, for all the voting machines, and everything like that. The Council was real pleased about that, and NOPSI said, "And by the way, would you let us choose the date of the election?" And the City Council said, "Sure." But, wouldn't you know, NOPSI chose the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and on that day, a lot of people have gone out of town and those in town were wanting to watch football games. NOPSI told their employees they had to go vote, and they had to vote a certain way. And that they were going to be people taking their names, just 600 feet from the polling place, which is as close as you can get to polling place.

There was no advertising. The City Council didn't do any advertising about the election and NOPSI did only a little bit. Mostly, it was just a quite election and nobody knew about it. So, hardly anybody voted, except the employees of the utility company, and, of course, they voted that they should not return regulatory control. So, the election was lost.

Then Gary and his crew and now the League joined in to convince the City Council that we should have another election, and pay for it ourselves. So, the City Council did that. They, actually, put up money out of their own budget to pay the cost for the election. And they scheduled it for May 4th, 1985.

And that's when the League got really involved, because Gary's group of activists were asking us to help hand out flyers, to go on TV, and to write letters to the editor in a classic campaign. And while most Leaguers didn't really go as far as getting involved in the campaign, the ones that did join in thought it was kind of fun.

The day of the vote was very hectic, with a lot of phone banking going on. Betty had two phone lines in her house, two separate lines, so for about a week, Betty and I phone banked for a couple of hours every day. I don't think that Betty ever thought, in her whole life, she would phone bank, but she was very good at it, actually.

Betty actually paid for t-shirts that activists, who were working the campaign, wore. "Don't let NOPSI screw you," they said. Betty had the idea, and she paid for the shirts, but said we must never, ever tell who did that. She was a classic, uptown, New Orleans woman, but had worked hard on school integration, and so forth. She was really in her heart an activist.

The night of the election, we were tensely waiting for the returns, and the radio announced that we had won, with 63% of the vote. It was very, very exciting. When we did exit polls, people thought they were voting to not pay for Grand Gulf. They didn't realize they were actually, voting to have regulatory control come back into the hands of the city.

About two months afterwards, we got a call from Gary. He thought it important that we all stay in touch, and asked could we get together and meet with the other activists. I told Betty that she should really come to that meeting, because she had done so much to make it all work and happen, She had not gone to the victory party the night of the election and they wanted to see her and thank her. So she said, "Well then, have the meeting here."

So, she opened her house, again, to the activist, and there she was in an uptown house that had a double parlor filled with beautiful art pieces, collections, and things, as well as, lots and lots of color. And there were all the activists in there, with their tattoos, and their colored hair, and their cutoffs, and so forth. And they just crowded into her two rooms, and in the hall, and sat on the floor, and on the sofas.

Gary and Betty sort of ran this meeting. And Gary was one of those people with a photographic memory. He was very outgoing, and he knew everybody there, and all their names. And Betty was the calm, League person, who knew the law and Robert's Rule of Order. Between the two of them, it just made a perfect team, for keeping all those activists interested and engaged in that meeting.

And we all agreed that the next step, in this whole thing, was that there should be somebody monitoring what the City Council did, that there should be an organization whose job was to watchdog the City Counsel, as regulator. That was agreed to by everybody but that was as far as we went that night.

Several of the activists and several of the League people stayed afterwards and we said that we would be an executive committee, and we would meet, regularly, once a week, until, at least, we got a name of the organization. We had a lot of discussion, back and forth, about what it should be called. But we finally came up with Alliance for Affordable Energy, because we were, definitely, an alliance.

We had the Sierra Club involved, and we had all these different organizations that had been very interested, since the Three Mile Island accident, which scared everybody, so much. And it was the beginning of an organization that is still in existence, now, 32 years later. And has saved the New Orleans ratepayers over $4 billion dollars, through its work as watchdog as to what the City Council agrees to do, or not do, with the utility.