By BRETT WILKISON AND KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The standoff between Santa Rosa and the officials overseeing Sonoma County’s planned public power agency is growing increasingly tense, with each side hardening its 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.