By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is hiring a consultant to help it decide whether to join the launch of the Sonoma Clean Power Authority, virtually assuring a down-to-the-wire decision on the controversial issue.
Mayor Scott Bartley said an outside opinion will enable the City Council to better understand the implications of joining the public power agency, which has a start date of Jan. 1.
As the county’s largest city, and its biggest electricity market, Santa Rosa’s participation is seen as an important part of the county’s plan, which aims eventually to serve 80 percent of PG&E’s local customers.
Sonoma Clean Power officials stressed that the June 30 deadline set for cities to join the program for the start is a firm one, and expressed hope the additional review wouldn’t delay Santa Rosa’s decision-making process.
“The risk to waiting past that deadline is considerable,” said Geof Syphers, one of the consultants working to help the Sonoma County Water Agency roll out the power program. “I think in fairness to the participating cities, we’re not able to push out the timeline.”
The authority wants to know who is on board by June 30 to give it enough time to negotiate contracts with power suppliers, get those contracts approved by the state, and begin delivering power by Jan. 1, Syphers said.
The effort is meant to displace Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as the county’s chief source of electricity and offer a greener energy portfolio from solar, wind, geothermal and small hydroelectric projects.
Delaying negotiations much past that deadline likely would result in higher initial power rates, because wholesale power costs and interest rates are on the rise, Syphers said.
But Bartley said the city has a time crunch of its own with the annual budget process taking up staff and council time in June.
“I just don’t see how it’s going to physically happen by June 30,” Bartley said. “Our calendar is tightly booked and we just don’t physically have the time.”
Making a decision sometime in July “could possibly work,” Bartley said.
City Manager Kathy Millison said City Council members continue to have questions about the program, and she is hiring an expert for a “very narrow-scope assignment” to help answer some of those questions.
“We need to better understand and validate for ourselves things like the governing structure and the procedures set forth in the (joint powers authority) and if that’s going to meet our needs,” Millison said.
Millison said she expects to hire the consultant within a week to 10 days. She said the work likely will cost less than $10,000.
Councilman Jake Ours said it makes sense for the city to get some backup on such a complicated subject.
“I think we wouldn’t be serving the public very well if we didn’t get some type of independent expert help that said ‘this is the worst thing in the world,’ or ‘this is the best thing in the world,’ or something in between,” Ours said.
He said he hopes the council will be able to make at least an initial decision on the issue by the June 30 deadline.
“We’re trying to do what they want, but we’re also trying to know what we are doing,” Ours said.
The issue of whether to hire a consultant arose at the council’s May 21 meeting when Sonoma Clean Power advocates urged the City Council to commit to the program.
Some council members, including Ours and Robin Swinth, suggested it would be helpful to have a third party provide the city with “legal and technical” advice on the finer points of the proposal. Swinth, Ours and Bartley serve on the council subcommittee that has been meeting in private to study the issue.
But other council members, including Gary Wysocky and Erin Carlstrom, seemed less supportive of the idea, wondering aloud whether doing so would affect the city’s ability to meet the June 30 deadline.
Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane suggested at the May 21 hearing that hiring an outside consultant was unnecessary, offering to send the council the resumes of the energy experts who already had vetted the program for the authority.
“There is a lot of technical assistance that is already available,” Zane said to a hearty round of applause from advocates concerned about delays.
Bartley said city would move as quickly as possible, but stressed it would not be pressured into making a decision before it was ready.
“We still have our political hat to wear, which means we’ve got to make sure we have a comfort level for the people who aren’t in the room,” Bartley said.
The council didn’t take a vote on hiring a consultant, but Bartley said he saw “heads nodding” in support of doing so.
On Thursday, Zane said the authority’s consultants had “answered every single question they asked” and she said she wasn’t sure what else the council needed to know.
“Maybe they are just doing this to say to their residents that they’ve done their due diligence,” Zane said. “I am able to respect that.”
She stressed, however, that delaying negotiations with potential electrical power suppliers past the deadline risked all participants missing out on getting the lowest rates possible.
“This timeline is in place in order for us to maximize our negotiating power,” Zane said.
Ours agreed that Sonoma Clean Power officials had responded to all the city’s questions. “But their answers made more questions,” Ours said.
Santa Rosa accounts for nearly 35 percent of PG&E power use in Sonoma County and is considered by many to be key to the long-term success of the Sonoma Clean Power program.
The city has canceled its regular meeting set for June 11 and instead will hold a public forum dedicated solely to hearing how the public feels about the subject. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall.
The special meeting was scheduled after it became clear there wasn’t enough time for full public comment during the May 21 meeting.
So far, only Windsor has agreed to join the county’s unincorporated area for the launch of the agency, although cities can join later.
Petaluma put off a decision until at least September, suggesting it might consider joining the power authority in Marin County instead. Rohnert Park meets Tuesday to discuss whether to bring the matter back for a formal vote later this month.
Cloverdale is set to bring the issue back on Wednesday to affirm its previous straw vote not to join the program in its initial rollout.
Sonoma has set June 17 for a formal discussion and vote. Sebastopol is eyeing June 25 and Cotati June 26 for their formal votes. Healdsburg already is part of a municipal power system independent of PG&E.