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Taking on power; Consumer advocate revels in uphill battle

The San Francisco Chronicle

Given a choice, Nettie Hoge would rather be out in her garden right about now, digging in the dirt.

Instead, the head of The Utility Reform Network is digging into California’s energy mess, making sure the average Joe doesn’t take it in the kisser as lawmakers, regulators and utility brass hats try to keep the lights on and utilities afloat.

It’s grueling work, full of long hours that leave precious little time for the gardening Hoge so adores. Not that she’s complaining. Hoge, 50, honestly loves her job and insists she wouldn’t do anything else.

“I’ve got a mutant gene,” she said with a laugh as she relaxed, for just a moment, in a spartan office littered with messy piles of paperwork. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”

TURN has been keeping tabs on companies like Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Pacific Bell for more than 25 years. Hoge and her crew lobby the Public Utilities Commission, counsel lawmakers, analyze reports and file the occasional lawsuit. They are, in short, professional gadflies who represent the public in a system that some say favors big business.

“The biggest protector of the consumer, by far, has been TURN,” said Bob Gnaizda, public policy director for the Greenlining Institute in San Francisco. “(Hoge) has made TURN into the leading consumer utility advocate in the nation.”

It’s not glamorous work, nor is it particularly lucrative. Hoge, a lawyer by training, took a pay cut when she accepted the $75,000-a-year job in 1995. And, truth be told, most folks have no idea Hoge is in their corner.

“There are other rewards,” she said. “You don’t get the adoration of Joe Citizen standing up and yelling, ‘Yay TURN!’ But there’s an excitement about being involved in the discussions where the big decisions are made.”

The youngest of four children, Hoge bounced around the middle of the country as she grew up, following her career Army officer father from Kansas to Oklahoma to Texas.

“All the places where you can shoot big guns,” she joked.

Hoge graduated from high school in Pullman, Wash. After a stint at the University of Southern California, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington State University and earned a law degree from the University of San Francisco.

Hoge’s entire career has been spent protecting the underdog. During a two-year stint as a law school graduate at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in San Francisco, “I got into trouble for doing too much pro bono work,” Hoge recalled. “The partners would come around each month to check our billable hours. Mine were always zero.”

Since taking the helm almost six years ago, Hoge has led TURN to some impressive consumer victories. They include persuading the Public Utilities Commission to create a $352 million fund to underwrite rural telephone service and bringing an end to ratepayer subsidies of PG&E‘s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 2002.

Hoge, a stickler for detail, has a reputation for giving exhaustive answers to even mundane questions.

“Everybody agrees she knows what she’s talking about,” said Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “In many respects, TURN is the intellectual force in this debate. Those of us who are deeply involved in this issue rely upon Nettie to lay out the facts for us.”

Hoge is surprised people think her wonkish, but admits she is circumspect.

“My big fear is being marginalized and having people think we (at TURN) don’t know what we’re talking about,” she said. “Maybe I overcompensate.”

Few doubt Hoge’s smarts, but she has plenty of critics among the utilities, lawmakers and lobbyists she has crossed swords with over the years. However, none of them will say anything publicly.

“We have no comment on her,” said Shawn Cooper, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., the parent company of the foundering utility.

It was the same story with Southern California Edison and many of the legislators who have criticized Hoge and TURN in recent years.

Hoge isn’t surprised her adversaries are keeping mum.

“There’s nothing for them to gain by saying anything negative about us because the public is on our side,” she said.

Still, TURN has drawn criticism from Carl Wood, generally considered the most ardent consumer advocate on the PUC.

“Frankly, I would have expected myself to be on the same page with (TURN) more than I actually am,” Wood said. “I’m not sure they wholeheartedly believe in regulation, and I think it comes from a distrust of regulators. But maybe I’m taking it personally.”

Wood chastised TURN for supporting utility divestiture of generating plants as California’s deregulation effort got under way. And he said Hoge places too much emphasis on the utilities’ role in the energy mess instead of focusing on the profiteering of power generators.

“The utilities have some culpability, but they are not the main driver behind the crisis,” Wood said. “TURN’s interventions do not reflect that reality.”

Still, he gave TURN high marks and credited Hoge with making it a far more effective advocate.

Hoge admits she has had her hands full with the energy crisis, saying she and her staff “are trying to keep our health and sanity.”

Asked if she would have joined TURN if she had known how crazy California’s energy market would become and how hard she would have to work, Hoge was characteristically wary.

“I don’t think anyone would want to sign up for this,” she said after a moment’s pause. “On the one hand, it’s very serious, very rewarding work. But on the other hand, sometimes you’re just beating your head against the wall.”

Still, Hoge doesn’t plan to give up the fight anytime soon.

“But at some point I’d like to retreat and spend some time contemplating the forest for the trees.”

Or the garden for the plants.


Nettie Hoge — Age: 50.

  • Residence: Oakland.

  • Job: Executive director, The Utility Reform Network, October 1995 to present. The utility and telecommunications industry watchdog group in San Francisco represents consumers before the Public Utilities Commission, the Legislature and elsewhere.

  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications, Phi Beta Kappa, from Washington State University, 1976. Law degree, cum laude, from University of San Francisco, 1985.

  • Background: Most of Hoge’s 25-year career has been spent protecting the little guy, first as a social worker and later as an attorney with Consumers Union and the California Department of Insurance under Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

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