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Saying "No" to Municipalization

Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 1996

do, were extremely offended by accusations about JCP&L's performance and wanted us set the record straight. But while we would have loved to rebut, we "turned the other cheek" and focused instead on what mattered to Aberdeen residents.

A major goal of our campaign was to identify township leaders and citizens who cared about their township and wanted to see government and services improved. A town electric system, we learned, wasn't part of their improvement formula. By election day, we were able to mail and advertise a list of more than 500 people who said "No" to municipalization. These signatures came from citizens calling themselves the Aberdeen Taxpayers Against the Electric Referendum. JCP&L financially supported their mailings and ads, but the text and tone were approved by the group. The group included fire chiefs, planning board members, a retired police chief, and town boosters. These leaders spoke with friends and neighbors, wrote letters to the editor, and appeared on cable TV to urge fellow Aberdeen residents to vote "No."

Anchor supported another group, Citizens for Lower and Efficient Electric Rates (CLEER), which counted few prominent residents.

Aberdeen Triumphs

Our impressive external grassroots efforts was complemented by an internal campaign involving more than 100 JCP&L employee volunteers. Union members and officials worked side by side with JCP&L management. In fact, our yard-sign team was almost completely a union operation and none of its time was on the clock. Union and management officials went door-to-door on two Saturdays to discuss the ballot question with voters. This was grassroots at its best. Management and union leaders agreed that this type of teamwork, with its collegiality and focused purpose, will enhance union-management relationships for years to come.

The entire effort cost JCP&L about $175,000. But in the end, the investment paid off.

Aberdeen voters said "No" to township electric by a ratio of more than six to one (em 3,646 to 563. The seven-member Council lost all four seats, including the three incumbents who had voted to place the municipalization question on the ballot. The four newly elected Council members attributed their victory, in large part, to their opponents' support for the ballot initiative.

The outcome of Aberdeen's electric vote was influenced by many factors: JCP&L's structure for managing the campaign, excellent message development, and the discipline to adhere to the message. These combined factors fueled the effective internal and external grassroots programs.

Flexibility, though it seemed to contradict the campaign approach, was also critical. In campaigns like this, you never can predict what the other side will do or say. Your program and staff must be able to respond immediately and on target when the other side picks up support for its cause.

Finally, basic though it may seem, establishing a working relationship with community leaders and customers is the best defense against municipalization efforts. Of course, the strategy and tactics for municipalization initiatives differ due to the circumstances, but this basic formula can position you for the fight ahead.

Many of the lessons of this situation also apply to a utility's effort to convince