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One of the first stories I was assigned as a new intern in late January was SMUD's installation of energy smart meters.
SMUD customers were told the smart meters would provide them with more information about their energy usage, which could lead to better energy management for them and SMUD. The utility had just about finished testing the technology, and was ready to install more than 600,000 meters throughout the Sacramento area.
SMUD contracted with South Carolina-based Utility Partners of America for the majority of the installation work, and my assignment was to find out why SMUD had contracted with an out-of-state company rather than a local one. Installation of the smart meters meant that dozens of SMUD meter readers would be laid off.
Erik Krause, SMUD smart meter project manager, explained that when SMUD hired its meter readers years ago, they knew their jobs were temporary because of the impending installation of smart meters. Krause said that the utility was trying to retain those employees by retraining them.
"We're going to continue aggressively finding new positions within SMUD," he said. "We won't be making new jobs in order to support them, but we hope that the vast majority of them will find something inside SMUD." Krause said that of 73 meter readers, 26 have found other positions within the company in the last year.
As for contracting with Utility Partners of America, Krause said that SMUD did not presently have the resources to do the job efficiently, which made it necessary to bring in an outside company. UPA was chosen after a bidding process, he continued.
"When we were looking at this, we realized that we pretty much had our whole meter shop, and all the people who were experienced in this work, busy. We realized that there was no way that we would be able to install all the meters we needed to on our own," said Krause. "That's when we made the decision to go out for a contractor." He said that UPA was going to return 20 percent of its $7.5 million contract to Sacramento's economy, including hiring 60 workers.
UPA, with its trained workers, would save SMUD years of work, time and money, according to Krause.
I attempted to write a balanced story with the voices of the different groups affected. I contacted UPA twice by e-mail and once by phone, but received no reply. Fellow intern Sierra Barroza also tried to contact UPA, but received the same lack of response. I contacted the Office of Labor Relations for the city of Sacramento to ask if there were companies that SMUD could have hired in the Sacramento area, but the department said they were not involved with private contract bids.
After a tip from Editor-In-Chief David Watts Barton, I contacted Sam Glero, who represents SMUD workers in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Glero told me by e-mail that he did not represent meter readers. Other attempts to contact SMUD meter readers also led to deadends.
After attempting to contact SMUD, UPA, the IBEW, the Department of Labor, a number of personal contacts and some SMUD meter readers, the only response was from SMUD. While I was appreciative of the two interviews with Erik Krause, we at The Sacramento Press value balanced journalism. Because we were dealing with a potentially sensitive story, Barton, Managing Editor Colleen Belcher and I decided to postpone the story until we could gather information from all the relevant parties rather than publish something that represented only one side.
In the interest of journalistic transparency, we are publishing this to show my attempts to write this now two-month-old story. Readers who are aware of this story and may have wondered why we haven't covered it should know it is not for lack of effort. That being said, The Sacramento Press is built on community contribution. If you are a SMUD meter reader or know one, feel free to contact me, Colleen or David.
Until then, we leave you with this record of our efforts to cover an important story.