By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials are set to debut a fledgling public power agency next week by taking on several key decisions in the first open meeting of the Sonoma Clean Power Authority.
In what looks to be a closely watched hearing Tuesday, officials are set to approve $2.5 million in startup financing for the effort and make changes in how the authority’s board is composed and how it will be governed.
The proposed moves are being scrutinized by government watchdogs concerned about the ultimate shape, purpose and viability of the power venture and by city representatives who are being pressed to decide by early next month whether their jurisdictions will participate.
The meeting may act as the first public test of the county’s renewed pledge to work more closely with cities to develop the power agency.
“People are sitting back because they want to see if we’ll deliver,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
Of eight cities being courted by the county, Santa Rosa, representing the county’s largest municipal power market, and Sebastopol, Sonoma and Cotati all have decisions on the line. That means the debut comes in a critical period for the agency, which intends to begin serving homes and businesses Jan. 1 and displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as the area’s dominant electricity supplier with a greener energy portfolio.
Cities’ decisions have been complicated by a county timeline that originally asked them to decide by June 30 whether to join the first-year rollout.
Cloverdale, Petaluma and Rohnert Park opted out, and subsequent pressure from Santa Rosa council members led the date to be moved to July 9.
Only Windsor so far has joined unincorporated parts of the county. On Friday, county supervisors abruptly postponed their planned selection of an interim chief executive for the agency to allow the town to participate in the process. Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepki is to be seated on the power authority board Tuesday.
The delay will also allow a representative from each undecided city to have an advisory role in the selection.
Before Friday’s last-minute reversal, several city representatives had voiced frustration with the county’s move to pick a top manager before seating a fuller board.
“If they are truly a partner, they would consult with us,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Gary Wysocky. “It’s a major decision.”
County officials acknowledge their schedule has been fast-paced, on a subject that can be complex. Tension with cities over other county-driven initiatives hasn’t helped.
“A lot of this is about trust because it’s a startup business,” Zane said. “We need to admit that our communication has been far from perfect. Maybe we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves.”
Of the changes proposed for adoption Tuesday, city representatives welcomed some while other officials, including critics outside government, say the moves don’t go far enough.
A key change requested by smaller cities would prevent the county and Santa Rosa — representing the largest areas of power use and more than two-thirds of the potential weighted voting shares — from changing the agency’s joint powers agreement without also having the support of two-thirds of the voting members. It would also limit the ability of the county or Santa Rosa to unilaterally block changes.
Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, whose city pushed for the revision, called it a signal the county was honoring its pledge.
“There’s other areas for improvement, but this step indicates that we can work together and accomplish those changes in the future,” Landman said.
Another revision to the joint powers agreement — essentially the agency’s constitution — has drawn fire from critics for falling short on ratepayer protection.
It would add a fourth appointee representing residential customers to a ratepayer advisory committee. The seven-member committee would be filled out by three representatives for commercial or industrial customers.
Leaders of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the largest local environmental group, say the ratepayer committee is still without a definitive role or a sufficient budget, shortcomings that leave protection for the agency’s paying customers “very weak,” the group said.
“They (the ratepayer committee) should have mandatory reports in public on all rate issues,” said David Keller, the group’s board chairman. “They also should not be dismissible at the will of the board of directors. You want them to be adversarial.”
Keller has also argued for citizen appointees to the larger authority board, saying such oversight is needed to make up for the professional demands and special interests that can control elected representatives.
“Otherwise the entire board is run at the behest of senior staff,” Keller said.
While county documents state the agency would exclude nuclear sources from its non-renewable portfolio, some advocates have also called for an outright ban — built into the agency agreement — on nuclear power purchases. (The renewable portfolio, meanwhile, would start at 33 percent, and under California law could include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric projects.)
County officials say such policy questions are better left to discussion once the authority is more broadly formed.
“While it may not be perfect, this is the best approach we can take at the moment,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo. “We’ve gotten to a point that we feel local cities should feel compelled to give it a shot.”
Some city leaders voiced appreciation for the county’s recent show of flexibility. Friday’s freeze in the CEO selection, after hours of interviews with three final candidates, will allow Windsor formal input through a repeat closed-session screening July 2.
In a different setting over the next week, mayors for Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Cotati will also get their chance to meet and interview the candidates, county officials said.
“I think it’s a benefit to the CEO coming in,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman. “We don’t want to have that person come in and not have met or have the backing of those other city members. … It’s moving us ahead, although in a strange sort of way.”
Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said the executive selection had not been “a make or break issue” for him. But he welcomed the chance to provide input.
“It doesn’t hurt us to have more information,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors is set to start Tuesday morning’s hearing in the supervisors chambers with an awkward bit of business. As the board brings on Okrepki from Windsor onto the authority board, Rabbitt plans to remove Supervisor Susan Gorin, the shortest-serving county board member.
Ultimately, the authority board could include nine members — one from each city and the county. (Healdsburg is not in the mix because it has its own municipal utility.)
“I’m the low guy on the totem pole,” Gorin said, adding that Rabbitt had sought her consent on the shakeup.
The power authority is also set to approve the $2.5 million in startup financing from First Community Bank. The line of credit will support administrative and office costs, plus negotiations with PG&E. It will be guaranteed by the county through the $1.76 billion county treasury.
Other proposed changes to the joint powers agreement under discussion Tuesday include:
A declaration that renewable energy credits would be used only as a cost-saving “transitional method” to reduce the county’s carbon footprint while planning for build-out of local power generation projects. The credits are derided by critics as a greenwashing tool because they allow a power user to claim renewable sources while actually getting standard-sourced power from the grid.
A provision stating that a participating municipality is not liable for the debts or obligations of the power agency unless the governing board of that municipality agrees to assume any of the debts or obligations.The addition is meant to address concerns voiced by city leaders that their taxpayers could be liable should the venture fail.
A provision that would guarantee that any amendments proposed by cities which join the authority by July 9 would be brought forward for consideration within the first three meetings.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.