TURN founder Sylvia Siegel dead at 89

Consumer activist Sylvia Siegel, who fought the state Public Utilities Commission and once rebuked a 60 Minutes interviewer for inquiring about her age, has died in Mill Valley. She was 89.

“That’s none of your damn business,” Siegel snapped at TV reporter Harry Reasoner during a 1984 interview for a 60 Minutes profile. The response was indicative of the feisty Siegel, who among her supporters achieved a legendary stature as an aggressive, focused advocate. Indeed, Reasoner may have been lucky: Siegel often responded to meddlesome inquiries with a burst of profanity.

As the founder of TURN–originally called Toward Utility Rate Normalization–and as TURN’s executive director for 16 years, Siegel “saved California consumers billions of dollars.” TURN said. After discovering that no one was challenging utility rate increase applications at the California PUC, Siegel took on the job herself.

Siegel founded TURN from her kitchen table in 1973. “She 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,” said TURN spokeswoman Mindy Spatt.

A colorful character in the dull world of utility regulation, Siegel captured the public’s attention. 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 create 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.

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.

According to TURN senior staff attorney Mike Florio, “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.”

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.

No services were planned.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to TURN, 711 Van Ness Ave., Suite 350, San Francisco, CA 94102, to the American Cancer Society or to the Marin Hospice.

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