WatchSonoma Watch

Power agency conflict heats up



The standoff between Santa Rosa and the officials overseeing Sonoma County’s planned public power agency is growing increasingly tense, with each side hardening itspower lines stance about conditions for joining the agency and ramping up the political rhetoric as the key vote approaches Tuesday.

Santa Rosa City Council members defended their decision last week to have city staff prepare a long list of conditions that need to be met before they would join the agency, including the number of seats it would receive on the board and a written commitment to not buy nuclear power.

“If the county wants us to be a partner, then they should treat us like a partner,” said Councilman Gary Wysocky, who applauded his colleagues’ thorough review of the program and demand for changes before joining. “They either want to work with Santa Rosa, or they want to dictate.”

Sonoma Clean Power officials, meanwhile, reiterated their stance that the July 9 deadline for joining would not be extended, and stressed that the city’s vote must be unconditional for the city to be part of the program’s first year.

“If they want to make changes, they need to join us,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “I’m disappointed, because I have teed this up for them.”

Zane, whose district includes most of Santa Rosa, ratcheted up the political pressure on council members, predicting that if they prevent their constituents from being able to sign up for the program “there will be a lot of people angry at them.”

She said the council would be “playing Big Brother” if it blocked residents and businesses from choosing to participate, and suggested that “overly concerned staff members” were the ones “calling all of the shots” in the city.

The rhetoric is likely to raise the stakes in the high-profile political showdown between the county and Santa Rosa and shine an even brighter spotlight on the City Council’s decision, expected to take place at the end of what looks to be a long public meeting tomorrow.

As Sonoma County’s largest city and biggest urban power market, Santa Rosa is considered a key to the county-driven program’s long-term success. But Sonoma Clean Power officials insist the venture is viable in the short-term without the city’s 97,000 power meters, which account for 34 percent of the power sold by PG&E in the county.

Santa Rosa officials have been pushing back against the county’s timeline for months, warning in the spring that the original June 30 deadline was too aggressive and using their leverage to broker an extension until July 9.

But if the county hoped that postponing the deadline would increase council members’ comfort level with the program, the approach appears to have backfired. It gave the city time to hire two consultants who raised a number of legal and technical questions about the program, concerns that several council members appear to have taken to heart.

Following a study session last week, City Manager Kathy Millison drafted a staff report outlining nine changes council members want in the agency’s joint powers agreement and draft implementation plan.

Which, if any, of the conditions the City Council ultimately requires as part of its vote remains to be seen Tuesday.

Privately, some observers of the machinations say council members appear to fall into one of three positions. One or two appear ready to join now and are willing to try to resolve the city’s issues once the agency’s board is seated.

Others support a “yes” vote with a conditions attached, genuinely hoping to force changes they think will protect the city and help the program succeed.

Still others may vote “yes” with conditions they know will be unacceptable to the agency. Such a vote would give them political cover, allowing them to say they voted for it while minimizing any political fallout of a “no” vote.

Councilwoman Julie Combs said she’s certainly not trying to add “poison pill” provisions that will prevent the agency from being able to accept the city in the first phase, she said.

“Personally, I have not asked for anything that I haven’t been promised,” Combs said.

Those requests include putting in writing the agency staff’s assurances of no nuclear power, greater ratepayer protections and a dedicated funding stream to build local generation projects.

Agency officials are standing firm on the no-conditions ultimatum while urging council members to trust that many of their concerns are likely to be agreed to by the agency’s board after Santa Rosa joins.

Geof Syphers, interim chief executive of the Sonoma Clean Power Authority, said he met or spoke with several Santa Rosa officials Friday to convey that message but made no promises.

“All we can do is give them (Santa Rosa) feedback about what we’ve heard from current board members and future board members,” Syphers said.

For example, calls for the agency to not buy nuclear power and use eminent domain authority only upon a unanimous vote of the board would likely pass, Syphers said. “I think those kinds of issues are generally pretty popular,” he said.

Other conditions — like the idea that, because Santa Rosa uses as much power as the unincorporated county, the city and county ought to have an equal number of seats on the board — likely would be opposed by the smaller cities, Syphers said.

Combs said it was very frustrating to see the county consider some amendments to the JPA but not others at its meeting on June 25, and to now say there is no time to consider further changes.

“I’m really, really sorry to hear that. It’s a shame,” Combs said. “I want to join this so badly. I wish they would help me!”

Combs said her phone “has been ringing off the hook” with advocates for both sides trying to convince her to support or reject the plan.

She said she finds Syphers to be “very reassuring.” But she can’t get past the fact that the city could face huge financial penalties if it joins hoping to get certain changes that ultimately don’t happen, and then decides to withdraw from the program.

Syphers has called such a scenario highly unlikely and said there would be no penalties if they city gave sufficient notice, which he said could be a few years.

The risk to Santa Rosa not joining in the first year is that other smaller cities would have seats at the table during the crucial period when governance and policy issues are worked out, Zane said,

“If they choose not to join, it’s going to give cities that have joined an extra year to make all of these decisions,” she said.

The prospect of a political blowback for not joining is a very real risk, Zane said, as evidenced by the city of Novato initially opting not to join the Marin Energy Authority, which upset a lot residents and businesses, she said.

She said she understood Santa Rosa wanting to use its clout to get changes it felt are important, but she said the time has come for a decision.

“You get elected to make decisions. It’s not the city managers or city attorneys that are elected to make decisions,” she said.

Wysocky said he felt it was perfectly appropriate for the city to be requiring changes now instead of hoping to get them once they join.

“Where I come from, you negotiate the terms of the agreement prior to signing it, as opposed to after,” Wysocky said.

He rejected as arbitrary the agency’s plan to begin delivering power by Jan. 1, suggesting it could easily be put back a month or two if the county wanted to. The fact that the agency is planning to sign up only 10,000 accounts in the first year proves that the rush for Santa Rosa to join in the first year is unwarranted, he said.

But Syphers made it clear no further extensions will be granted. “There’s no movement on that, and there’s not going to be,” he said.

Syphers said the deadline is not arbitrary because interest rates and power costs are on the rise, potentially increasing the cost of power the longer the authority waits.

Wysocky said he’s unconcerned about political consequences if the city’s vote Tuesday ends up keeping it on the sidelines for the first year. Wysocky, like Combs, has solar panels on his house, and for more than a decade has used a bicycle as his primary source of transportation, so he feels like he’s demonstrated his commitment to reducing greenhouse gases.

“I want to it to actually be clean power, and I haven’t seen that,” Wysocky said. “Do we go forward on blind faith, as some have suggested? I think not.”

He rejected the criticism that the city is getting bogged down trying to answer unanswerable questions at this point.

“Are we going to nail down every detail? No. How about the big ones?” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com. Kevin McCallum can be reached at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter@citybeater

10 Responses to “Power agency conflict heats up”

  1. James Bennett says:

    Gee, if you didn’t know better, it would almost seem like a legitimate process.

    Disagreement, officials thinking for themselves.

    Most know it’s ADD; Already Done Deal.

    What ICLEI wants, ICLEI gets.

  2. Bill me says:

    Shirlee Zane blaming SR staff for doing their jobs, delivering not so subtle political threats to SR Council members, and trying to deflect questions by uttering the ridiculous comment “if you want to make changes they need to join us”. Zane may be writing her own ticket out of office with her attempts to strong arm SR. Remember Shirlee, it is about choices and the City of SR doesn’t like the one you are trying to jam down our throats. Thanks to SR Council and staffers for asking the hard questions!

  3. Tom says:

    if it looks and smells like a rat………

  4. Inside Nine says:

    The power agency sounds more like a power grab than a real product. They just want to be power wielding middle men. Brokers who stand between sources and consumers. I cannot believe how poorly their salesmen are treating potential clients.

    Green – greed. In this case there’s no difference

  5. Stronger Santa Rosa says:

    Great way to portray the bullying now occurring by the Board of Supervisors in this desperate fast-track.

    I appreciate my City Council asking the tough questions and making sure this is done right…slamming staff that works so hard to do all the legwork and provide the facts that help them implement policy? Ridiculous!

    Let the City Council decide for whats best for Santa Rosans on this important issue.

  6. HenryBernard says:

    Sonoma Clean Power and the SCWA would have us all be Socrates knowing only that we know nothing. And voting aye, none the less.

    Sonoma Clean Power is not an energy supplier, but rather an energy trading company. PG&E will continue to service and repair infrastructure, bill users and transmit the actual power into which we plug. Sonoma Clean Power merely purchases that which PG&E delivers. And at a possibly (important distinction) lessor cost than our current provider. But no promises (remember Socrates?).

    Meanwhile its parent company, the SCWA has over a two year period, utilized taxpayer resources to expend an amount greater than $70,000 in food and coffee purchases. Imagine the public backlash should PG&E find itself accused of engaging in similar practices with CPUC designated funds?

    Reasonable people cast a circumspect eye on assurance composed of little more than a “trust me”. The Santa Rosa City Council has and we should applaud its tenacity.

  7. sonomacitizen says:

    Clean power in the absence of clean governance is an uphill challenge. The Water Agency bribed a Santa Rosa official in 2010; paid subsequent bribes ($115,000) to an associate of that official in 2011 and 2012; denied public access to Sonoma Clean Power Steering Committee meetings; lied to conceal lawful public access to vital financial forecasts; effectively perpetrated a massive fraud on the community by failing to include Healdsburg/NCPA–a 10% to 20% cheaper alternative to Sonoma CLean Power, in the Clean Power feasibility study; and now intend to lumber the Sonoma Clean Power cash flow with an added $3 million a year in concealed carrying costs for Sonoma County Energy Independence, the failed clean energy pilot for SCP. Is it any wonder there are trust issues between the County and its sister cities?

  8. Elephant says:

    Funny that after all the time and consultants, the Santa Rosa city Council has come up with basically the same concerns voiced by Mayor Glass and Councilmember Barrett when SCP came to Petaluma a few months ago. Regardless of how they got there, their concerns are major league and cannot be disregarded. If the absence of details on the $10 million start up loans doesn’t disturb you, then you aren’t paying attention. SCP says “Trust us”. Yeah right.

    I am no big fan of PG&E, but SCP does not offer me any semblance of a viable alternative, let alone actually greener. And am I the only one concerned that PG&E has remained silent on the whole issue? Perhaps because they are the only ones in a position to sell SCP power anyway. Santa Rosa City Council, please say NO to SCP. STOP THIS CRAZY THING!

  9. RICHARD says:

    Sonoma Clean Power SCP

    It’s not Sonoma because power will come from out side Sonoma.

    It’s not clean because nuclear and coal power may, and probably will, be included.

    It’s Power [ money ] to who ?

    SCP is not what we were told it would be.

    It’s not public, PG&E remains involved and will bill for its services.

    We were told there is no liability then we found out there could millions of dollars in liability.

    Having a solar panel can cost more than its worth – a money loser for the one with the panel.

    There is more risk because the state PUC will not have oversight.

  10. inside9 says:

    I’d rather buy snake oil than join this slippery agency. They only want to sign up 10,000 accounts the first year but want a big yes right now?? Huh?