By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A last-ditch effort to assuage Santa Rosa’s concerns about the structure of the Sonoma Clean Power Authority succeeded Tuesday, convincing the city to join the launch of the fledgling public power agency.
The tentative, unanimous vote ends the long and at times tense political stand-off over whether the city would allow its residents and businesses to sign up for the program that aims to supplant PG&E as the county’s dominant energy supplier.
“This is a tremendous development,” said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign. “By adding Santa Rosa to the mix, Sonoma Clean Power will be able to build local renewable energy faster.”
Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who just last week expressed frustration with the long list of conditions the city set for its participation in the program, said she was “thrilled” to get the largest city in the county on track to join.
“To get Santa Rosa on board, that’s huge,” Zane said.
The breakthrough came after agency officials agreed to recommend several — but not all — of the changes sought by city council members, including extra board seats for the city, additional ratepayer protections and a way to avoid financial penalties for withdrawal.
“Sonoma Clean Power is in a better place for the work that we’ve done here,” said Councilwoman Robin Swinth, who served on the three-member subcommittee that examined the issue in great detail.
The deal was made possible by the county backing off its position that it would not accept Santa Rosa into the program in the first year if its vote Tuesday contained any conditions. The city would have to join first and lobby for those changes later, county and agency officials insisted.
But the City Council last week sent a clear message that it could only support joining the program if its ordinance contained several changes to the joint powers authority and its implementation plan.
Mayor Scott Bartley said he left that meeting very discouraged by the apparent impasse despite all the work they put in to studying and improving the proposal.
“I left last week thinking we may just have to let this opportunity pass us by and wait for the next opportunity,” Bartley said.
He said he was proud of the unity shown by the council last week, and said he felt it played an important role in agency officials’ changing their tune.
Bartley’s council colleagues praised him for the hard work and leadership he showed in helping broker the weekend deal.
“The business case for including Sonoma Clean Power is strong,” Geof Syphers, interim CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, said in explaining his change of heart after meeting with Bartley. Syphers said his working relationship with the city had been “truly exceptional” in recent days.
The deal isn’t yet sealed. The ordinance will have to be brought back for a formal adoption on July 16.
That will delay until July 17 the transmittal of the information potential power suppliers need to put together their bids.
Then on July 25, the board of directors of Sonoma Clean Power will have to agree to the changes negotiated by Syphers, which he said he will “heartily support” but which he could not guarantee will pass.
Syphers had previously said that he didn’t think the board would ever accept Santa Rosa having the same number of seats on the board as the county, as has now been proposed. But by July 25, only one of the three other cities that have voted to join, Windsor, will have been seated. The two others, Cotati and Sebastopol, will not.
Syphers said he has spoken to representatives of those cities, and while they are “not happy” about the change, they have not “thrown up any red flags” that would indicate they have a huge problem with it.
Some of the changes approved by Santa Rosa on Tuesday and endorsed by Syphers include:
*Ensuring that Santa Rosa has an equal number of seats on the board as Sonoma County regardless of how many cities participate.
*Requiring that the board receive a 75 percent supermajority to exercise certain powers of eminent domain.
*Requiring that the board receive a 75 percent supermajority and get approval from the governing boards of the cities and county whenever those entities are required to pledge their assets to support the program.
*Requiring that the board, its committees or governing body of subsidiary companies established by the agency comply with the state’s open meeting act, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
*Strengthening ratepayer protections by making it harder to remove appointees to the ratepayer advisory committee, requiring a two-thirds majority of the board of directors.
*Setting that committee’s budget for at least $50,000 and changing language to say it “shall” make recommendations to the board instead of “may.”
*Clarifying that the city would be given time to withdraw from the program without penalty, and detailing the process for doing so if it does not want to wait.
*Giving the city more time to decide whether it wants to switch its accounts over to the program.
Several businesses reached out to the council to express their support for the program, including Oliver’s Market and Community Market. Codding Enterprises, owner of Coddingtown Mall, also wrote a letter to the council predicting that joining Sonoma Clean Power could save it $34,000 a year.
Ernesto Olivares said his vote “probably will be one of the most important decisions I will make as a council member.” But he added that just as the council has worked hard to bring itself up to speed on the issues of renewable power, residents now have to do the same as they decide whether to participate in the program.
Councilwoman Julie Combs proposed adding language to the joint powers agreement, essentially the agency’s constitution, that it consider limiting its use of nuclear power. She argued that the promise of not using nuclear power has been “part of the sales package” for Sonoma Clean Power, and only wanted to see it in writing.
But Syphers said there are pros and cons to many different energy sources, and such a policy should be set only after other factors, such as the impact on ratepayers, are considered. The motion failed on a 4-3 vote.
Councilman Gary Wysocky also proposed adding language setting a goal of the agency to pay prevailing wages and enter into project labor agreements. That vote similarly failed on a 4-3 vote.
David Keller, chairman of Sonoma County Conservation Action, praised the council for doing a thorough analysis.
“Certainly in the political setting this has been set up in, stopping to take the time to vet the project, to vet the details has sometimes not been particularly appreciated,” Keller said. “We do appreciate it.”
Plenty of difficult decisions lie ahead for the program, but Keller said Santa Rosa showed how those decisions should be made deliberatively and transparently.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.