Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena deserves credit for pushing Tampa Electric Co. to be more aggressive about conservation and renewable energy and more sensitive to neighborhood concerns. But council members also need to be practical; the issues they are raising to hold up renewal of Tampa Electric's contract with the city fall largely under the purview of the state, not local government. The council should approve the deal when it comes up Thursday and embrace Mayor Pam Iorio's proposal to create an ongoing dialogue with the power company.
The 25-year contract between the city and Tampa Electric spells out how much the utility has to pay for using the right-of-way for power lines. The city and Tampa Electric (and its predecessors) have had a continuous franchise agreement since 1893. Saul-Sena and two other council members wanted to use the renewal as an opportunity to insert language in the contract requiring Tampa Electric to do more on energy efficiency and conservation. But those requirements fall under the state's authority, and holding up the contract further is a waste of city time and money.
Iorio has proposed creating a citizens' task force to work with Tampa Electric on a citywide conservation initiative. That idea has potential. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to jump-start the green-technology sector, and Gov. Charlie Crist is pushing for an ambitious schedule to promote the development of alternative fuels in Florida.
The timing is right for an ongoing local discussion with Tampa Electric as its industry changes. While skeptics are right that any concession would be voluntary, that is the case now. The city has no leverage to force the utility to deal on matters outside the city's regulatory control. And until the two sides reach a new contract, Tampa Electric operates under its existing franchise agreement, which does not address Saul-Sena's concerns, either. So what is gained by further delay?
The big issue will be whether Tampa Electric treats the task force seriously. Tampa Electric does not have the best history of working openly and candidly with the public. The company said it is committed to participate, but the utility is not involved with any other such locally created task force in its four-county service area. The city has a chance to show its good faith by renewing the franchise, creating the panel and putting the onus on Tampa Electric to respond.