By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials have given Santa Rosa a little more time to decide whether to join the launch of its fledgling public power agency, defusing what had become a tense political standoff over the timing of the high-stakes decision.
Mayor Scott Bartley said Friday morning that after speaking with supervisors Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo, he had agreed to hold a vote on the issue at the City Council’s July 9 meeting.
“We’ve got virtually a month and that should be enough time to answer the questions we have to make this decision,” Bartley said.
County officials, meanwhile, stressed that rising costs meant delays much beyond the deadline risked the power authority’s ability to negotiate the lowest rates for participants in the first year, something they couldn’t justify without a clearer timeline from the city.
But on Friday morning Bartley and Zane confirmed the compromise.
“I am delighted,” Zane said. “I’ve been talking extensively to our leaders in Santa Rosa in the last day or so and I want to commend them for taking a leadership role.”
The deal ensures the City Council will make a timely decision on whether to switch 97,000 accounts in the city from Pacific Gas & Electric to the new agency in phases beginning in 2014.
New customers will be able to opt out of the program without a fee two months before their accounts are switched and two months after. If they choose to go back to PG&E after two months, there will be a $5 fee for residential customers, $25 for commercial accounts.
Santa Rosa’s decision to hire two independent consultants to help it answer legal and technical questions about the possible pitfalls of the program complicated the effort to set a decision date.
The city has yet to hire the technical consultant, and Bartley had said the city couldn’t agree to a specific decision date until it knew how long it would take for the consultant to complete their work.
But on Friday, Bartley said several factors helped lead to the agreement. He said county officials clarified that they needed to know whether Santa Rosa was on board before July 15 because that’s a key deadline for the authority to give power suppliers participation data to allow them to finalize their bids.
Another was that Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom is out of town on July 16, and there is no council meeting the following week, Bartley said.
Finally, Bartley said he’s hopeful that the technical consultant can be hired and working by next week, and that the answers the council needs should take “hours, not weeks” to get, he said.
That’s partly due to the realization that many of the technical questions council members have involve whether the city government should allow its 700 various electricity accounts to switch to Sonoma Clean Power or remain with PG&E. But those decisions do not have to be made until the fall under the current timeline, he said.
Sonoma Clean Power advocates say the program will deliver a cleaner mix of power than PG&E at competitive rates, break the utility’s monopoly in the region’s power market, and create local jobs.
PG&E would continue to handle transmission, billing, metering, customer service and grid repair. The initial rollout in 2014 is only set to reach about 10,000 meters, but within three years, the plan envisions serving up to 80 percent of PG&E’s customers in the county, about 220,000 meters.
Critics question whether the power sources will truly be “green,” whether ratepayers will be adequately protected and whether the government should be getting into the power business at all.
So far only the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, representing the unincorporated areas, and the Windsor Town Council have voted to join the launch of the agency. Together, they account for about 40 percent of the power sold by PG&E in Sonoma County.
While the authority was projecting that it would be able to offer comparable rates and cleaner power than PG&E with the unincorporated areas alone, the addition of Santa Rosa, which accounts for 35 percent of the power sold by PG&E in the county, would help the authority negotiate lower rates, Zane said.
“We think that’s going to make those bidders sharpen their pencils, and that’s good news,” Zane said.
Bartley would not predict how the council will vote on July 9, noting that he and other council members still have significant questions.
Councilman Gary Wysocky is pushing for several modifications to the joint powers agreement — essentially the agency’s constitution — including stronger protections for ratepayers, a commitment to no nuclear power and a restriction or elimination of the authority’s powers of eminent domain.
He also argues that Santa Rosa, which could in theory end up with more than one-third of the power, shouldn’t be given what would effectively be veto power over decisions requiring a two-thirds majority of the board members.
“We already have more power than them, we shouldn’t have absolute power,” Wysocky said.
Councilwoman Julie Combs, who has called the authority a “blue sky opportunity for our city,” has expressed concern that the council wasn’t moving quickly enough to meet the county deadline, risking missing the first year and the chance to get the lowest rates. On Tuesday, she proposed setting a council vote for July 9, but was rebuffed.
Combs said Friday she was “really pleasantly surprised” by the deal.
“I’m glad he’s found a way to expedite the process,” she said.
The council member with perhaps the longest list of questions is Robin Swinth, an engineer and the council’s newest member. She sits on the council subcommittee exploring the issue, and has said she continues to have questions about the potential liability to the city, the impact on the city’s own accounts, how much credit the city will get for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and what types of power projects will be funded locally.
Even so, Swinth and fellow subcommittee member Jake Ours made remarks Tuesday that hinted they were becoming more comfortable with the concept.
“I do think there is an opportunity to do something here,” Swinth said.
“I continue to be more satisfied as we go into it,” Ours said.
Whether such proposed changes to the JPA can be made before the July 9 is unclear. Zane said the time to make changes is after the cities join. But she acknowledged some revisions to the JPA may come forward at the authority’s first public meeting on June 25. A closed session to interview candidates for the interim chief executive post is set for June 21.
Wysocky has argued that the changes need to be made before the city signs up, not after.
But many of the changes Combs and Wysocky are pursuing are issues of board policy, not items to be enshrined in the JPA said Geof Syphers, one of the energy consultants working to establish the power authority.
Even if it was appropriate, there is no practical way to make such substantive changes to the JPA because there is no time to do so before other cities vote on it, Syphers said.
While much discussion lies ahead, Zane said overall it seems to her that Santa Rosa is inching closer to joining.
“I have every bit of confidence that in the end the leaders of Santa Rosa will give their residents that choice, because this is about consumer choice,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.