Not since former Gov. Tom McCall has there been a figure in the state with the charisma, the easy command of power and the persuasive skills of Neil Goldschmidt. In the slightly altered words of Willie Nelson, the former mayor/governor could talk the chrome off a trailer hitch.
So it makes sense that Oregon's Big Dog got called last week to run Portland General Electric.
Well, not run it, exactly. Actually, he was asked to front for a Texas equity fund that wanted to buy it but, because of a glitch in federal energy law, needed some local representation on board.
All week, average nostrils have asked the Nose how they should feel about Neil. Will he do "good" and see that the utility is run in the interests of Oregonians, or will he do "good" and pocket millions in fees? And if he does both, what should our expectations be?
In a word: transparency.
There should be nothing opaque about the proposed PGE purchase. Ratepayers should be told how much money Goldschmidt and Deputy Dog Tom Walsh stand to make. They should be able to review the million-dollar contracts that will be signed. They should be allowed to review the new utility's board minutes to see whether our local reps talk about anything more than Goldschmidt's winery.
Let Oregon's new utility be housed in a glass office.
Why is this so important?
First, although the Nose is willing to give Goldschmidt the benefit of some St. Bernard-sized doubts, others have lost their trust. And the Nose can't blame them.
After all, it took a crowbar of a lawyer named John DiLorenzo and a reporter at the Salem Statesman Journal to pry free the details of Goldschmidt's $20,000 a month "consulting" fee charged to the state's quasi-
public worker's-comp insurer.
It's also troubling that Goldschmidt continued to campaign against an effort to make PGE a public utility even after he was offered the job as a private-utility exec.
There's also the awkward coincidence that at the moment the Texans were wooing Neil, his wife, Diana, was agreeing, along with the other members of the Oregon Investment Council, to kick $300 million in state funds to Texas Pacific.
The Nose thinks the new utility needs to be as transparent as the lens on Paris Hilton's videocamera. That's because His Schnozness is fiercely free-market, and PGE is anything but. PGE doesn't sell its wares in the free market--it has a monopoly, one the state's Public Utility Commission has proven impotent to regulate.
The PUC is an understaffed, utility-friendly agency whose commissioners are too often the underemployed pals of powerful pols. (Recent commission appointee Ray Baum, for instance, is a crony of Sen. Gordon Smith's who got the job only after he flunked out of the competition to be Oregon's U.S. Attorney.) And the only territory more fertile for abuse than an unregulated monopoly is Michael Jackson's bedroom.
So let's not make the biggest economic and political story of the year become a personality contest. Instead, let's make it a contest of clarity. That's the only way nostrils will have a fighting chance.