First published August 19, 2007 in the California Progress Report.
Legendary consumer activist Sylvia Siegel died peacefully in her sleep on August 18, 2007. Siegel, who was 89, was always reticent about revealing her age. In a profile for CBS's 60 Minutes in 1984, Harry Reasoner asked her how old she was, prompting a sharp response. "That's none of your damn business," Siegel snapped.
As The Utility Reform Network's (TURN) founder and executive director for 16 years, Siegel saved California consumers billions of dollars. After discovering that no one was challenging outrageous utility rate hike applications at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Siegel took on the job herself. She founded TURN, originally called Toward Utility Rate Normalization, from her kitchen table in 1973. Siegel taught herself the complex laws and rules that govern utility rates, and learned how to use them to the benefit of the public, rather than the corporations.
A colorful character in the dull world of utility regulation, Siegel's talent and passion pushed her to the forefront of any battle she engaged in. Under her leadership TURN grew to become the largest and most successful utility consumer advocacy organization in the state. With a staff of 14 and an annual budget of over $1.5 million, TURN represents consumers in every important CPUC proceeding affecting gas, electric and telephone bills in California.
Siegel's work led to fairer rates, and helped mandate a "lifeline rate"—a minimum amount of gas and electricity made available to all consumers at a reasonable rate. Lifeline rates, now known as baseline rates, remain an essential protection for California consumers to this day. In addition, under Siegel's leadership TURN:
- Exposed $346 million in fuel cost overcharges by PG&E and Edison (1974);
- Stopped Pacific Telephone from charging lifeline customers for calls lasting more than five minutes (1976);
- Won a ruling from the US Supreme Court upholding a CPUC order forcing Pacific Telephone to refund $341 million to customers (1979), and
- Defeated a plan by SoCal Edison to impose a "customer charge" on all customers—even if they didn't use any electricity that month (1988).
A testament to the importance of Siegel's work is the support she received from the thousands of Californians who joined and continue to be members of TURN.
Siegel was born in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University with a BA in sociology. She moved to San Francisco in 1944 and worked for the War Labor Board and California Nurses' Association before beginning her crusade against the utilities in 1969. Siegel's quick thinking and dry humor made her a favorite with policymakers, the media and even her opponents. She charmed, disarmed and then went for the jugular. Even her adversaries, whom she routinely called all sorts of unprintable names, spoke fondly of her.
Siegel was notorious for her sharp wit, tenacity and precariously overflowing desk. Her desk was frightening. When TURN's offices were in a condemned building on Mission Street with plenty of space, Sylvia would just move on to another desk and leave her old one stacked with stuff. If a staffer went on vacation, they often came back to find Sylvia occupying their desk. One attorney who wanted to avoid that outcome rigged his desktop with mousetraps. When Sylvia discovered the mousetraps she called him a f---ing smart a--. She was also notorious for her foul mouth and then stuck legal pads in the mousetraps to disable them. The attorney returned to find his desk piled high with Sylvia's papers.
Siegel was the recipient of numerous public service awards and honors, including the California Public Interest Service Award from California Common Cause and Resolutions of Commendation from the California Legislature in 1989, a 1990 commendation from Marin Country for "Years of Service and Contributions to the Well-Being of the People of the County of Marin," and a 1997 award from the Social Justice Center of Marin for Outstanding Community Activism.
Upon her retirement from TURN in 1989 Siegel worked for the Marin County Board of Supervisors representing the interests of Marin customers of Viacom Cable. She went on to organize a statewide group called Consumers Cable Cop. Siegel was subsequently elected to the Marin Health Care Board. She also served on the Board of National Public Radio affiliate KQED. In 2000 she was named Director Emeritus of the Board of Directors of TURN.