Remembering Sylvia Seigel, TURN’s founder—December 2007

Without Sylvia Siegel there would not have been a TURN.

She didn’t merely create TURN from scratch; for most of our history, Sylvia was TURN.

In our early days, Sylvia was often a one-woman show, challenging utility requests for rate hikes and other excesses, making the public aware of the issues and TURN’s efforts, traveling the state to encourage public involvement and outrage, and walking the halls of the state Capitol, ready to pigeonhole any legislator who might cross her path. From the moment she arrived on the scene, Sylvia was a force to be reckoned with. It’s no wonder that she was soon a larger-than-life figure in consumer circles, admired and imitated by other advocates, respected and even feared by utilities and politicians.

One of Sylvia’s most lasting legacies is a “lifeline” electric rate, now known as “baseline” rates. Sylvia recognized the need to ensure that all California households had access to enough electricity to meet their basic needs, no matter their income level or where they lived. Working with Gene Coyle, another TURN hero, they convinced California policymakers to literally turn rates on their head”whereas previously higher levels of consumption had lower rates, the lifeline program had rates increase when consumption increased. Not only did this provide more reasonable prices for an amount of electricity deemed essential, it also gave consumers a strong incentive to conserve energy. Californians have benefited for more than 30 years thanks to Sylvia’s foresight and leadership.

Sylvia officially “retired” from TURN nearly two decades ago (she spent part of her “retirement” founding a new group, Cable Cop, to take on the cable industry). But I still hear from members and even long-time utility employees about what a unique and special person she was. Sylvia had an uncanny knack for cutting through the noise, identifying the issues that really mattered, and then explaining to the public why those issues mattered in a simple and convincing way. I don’t know what’s more impressive”the fact that she took on the chore of teaching herself the complex laws and rules that govern utility rates, or her ability to use them to benefit the public, rather than the utilities that all-too-often wrote them. And I’m very sorry I missed the numerous times she displayed her absolutely unique talent to “charm, disarm, then go for the jugular,” as Mike Florio, TURN’s senior staff attorney and Sylvia’s colleague almost since the beginning, describes it. Only Sylvia could dress down a sitting Commissioner in public and have him smiling as he walked away.

TURN has been through a number of changes in the 30-plus years since we were a mere gleam in Sylvia’s eyes, and in the nearly 20 years since she ended her day-to-day work here. Many were for the better—we no longer work out of a building that has been condemned (although we pay higher rent as a result!), our staff has grown from a handful to several handfuls, and we no longer write our pleadings in longhand while worrying if we left enough time for the typing and mimeographing. Some of the changes have left consumers worse off”the higher rates that accompanied failed experiments in deregulation, for starters. But the core issue is the same today as when Sylvia was at TURN’s helm: every household needs access to reasonably priced energy and phone services.

TURN will continue to work towards achieving Sylvia Siegel’s vision, advocating on behalf of California consumers in an effort to ensure affordable and reliable utility services. We are proud to honor her legacy and continue her mission.

Sincerely,

Executive Director
Bob Finkelstein