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Sonoma Clean Power officials spar over salaries, benefits for employees


Officials of Sonoma County’s emerging public power agency sparred Thursday while setting compensation packages for a pair of new hires, splitting over appropriate pay for the posts and how salaries and benefits at the agency would compare to other public entities.

The debate revealed a significant, near-unanimous consensus: that Sonoma Clean Power employees should not be eligible for the traditional defined-benefit pension plans that have saddled Sonoma County, its cities and local and state governments across the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Several board directors called those retirement benefits unsustainable.

power linesBut disagreement over proposed salaries for a public affairs manager and an executive assistant — two positions that interim CEO Geof Syphers wants to fill quickly to assist with the workload — later divided the board in a 6-2 vote.

After an hourlong discussion, and an adjustment that reduced the top salary for both positions by $5,000 — to a range of $85,000 to $120,000 for the public affairs manager and $70,000 to $90,000 for the assistant — most board members said they were comfortable with the figures.

“You get what you pay for,” said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, noting Syphers’ stated wish to hire experienced staffers in the energy field.

But a minority led by county Supervisor Shirlee Zane strongly questioned the salary levels, saying a study of comparable local government positions was inadequate and any decision needed to be delayed.

The pay ranges ranked in the middle of the salary study, which featured similar posts from Orange, Contra Costa, Marin, Alameda and Sonoma counties. Zane, however, repeatedly called the proposed wages “inflated.”

“I believe we need to be competitive, but we also need to be conservative,” she said.

The debate reflected the growing pains of a startup venture that even supporters concede is very much under the public microscope, its every move scrutinized by skeptical future customers, government critics and those staunchly opposed to the alternative to PG&E.

Thursday’s relatively minor decisions, on the two tentative salary and benefit packages, a new consulting contract and new marketing deal, were therefore protracted, with board members taking pains to showcase their efforts to hold down administrative costs and support local job creation, two of Sonoma Clean Power’s stated goals.

On the salary issue, Syphers urged the board not to reduce the pay range further, noting the lower-cost 401(k)-type defined contribution retirement plans proposed for agency employees would make their overall compensation less — 18 percent less by one estimate — than comparable county employees.

Several directors described the benefits shift, and the resulting long-term savings, as groundbreaking. “This agency is not going to have that (pension) problem,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Jake Ours. “That is worth more than I can possibly imagine.”

Zane prolonged the debate with a push to have the benefits, including retirement, medical and life insurance — the details of which are yet to come — mirror the package set by SMART, the Sonoma-Marin rail agency.

SMART has a traditional defined-benefit pension for its employees. Reminded of that fact, Zane, who is a SMART board director, said later in an interview she was not pushing similar pension benefits for Sonoma Clean Power employees or opposed to 401(k)-type plans.

Several members of the public urged the board not to get hung up on the salary issue.

“If you really want to be conservative, (a focus on) overall compensation cost is the way to go,” said Bob Williamson, a Mark West-area resident active on government fiscal issues.

Harry Davitian, an energy firm executive, said the electricity business was an “arcane and highly confusing area,” and that salaries for the agency should reflect the complexity of the job.

“I fully understand trying to control the cost of government,” he said. But power industry employees, he said, are tasked with decisions where tens of millions of dollars are often on the line. Qualified candidates are not “in the same pool of people as other public employees,” he said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chairwoman, echoed others in the majority who voiced some concern about missing details in the proposed salaries and benefits. But she urged her fellow directors to allow the hiring to proceed.

“We have our executive here. He’s working out there on his own. He needs help,” Gorin said, before the split vote.

Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes joined Zane in opposing the proposed salary ranges, saying he preferred to wait until all details of the compensation packages were spelled out. The agency, which aims to begin electricity delivery to homes and businesses in May is set to hire four to six employees in its first year and up to 12 employees total within the first three years.

The public is set to get its first look early next month at the draft terms and conditions that four energy firms are bidding on for the initial three-year power supply contract.

In other business Thursday, the board unanimously approved a $253,000 contract to cover the work of its lead consultant and negotiator, Sacramento-based Dalessi Consulting. Dalessi’s previous contract, dating from 2010 and totaling $125,000, expired in June, according to Syphers.

A shorter debate about hiring local firms led into the unanimous decision to approve a five-month, $60,000 marketing contract with Green Ideals Group, a San Anselmo-based firm. It will take over from a Berkeley-based company, MIG, that designed the agency’s initial website under a $258,000 contract that also covered other duties. MIG has an office in Kenwood.

Its contract is now winding down, however, and upgrades are needed to the main website, officials said. New plans for a separate online site dealing only with governance are also underway.

Syphers said he was satisfied with MIG’s work, but Zane said it appeared to fall short of expectations.

“If we were unhappy with MIG, and that was expressed, then we need to have a discussion about what they didn’t deliver and what we’re looking for in the next company,” she said in an interview.

Given the focus on local job creation, board members urged wider consideration of Sonoma County firms for future contracts.

Windsor Vice Mayor Bruce Okrepkie expressed worry that the agency’s current business roster featuring out-of-county firms could play into critics’ hands.

“Our accountant is from Marin. Our consultant is from El Dorado Hills,” he said. “Granted there are reasons for (hiring them), but I can tell you our opponents are not going to put those reasons in.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

16 Responses to “Sonoma Clean Power officials spar over salaries, benefits for employees”

  1. James Bennett says:

    Too bad the people of Cotati aren’t getting what they pay for with Mr. Mark Landman.
    A very devout ICLEI change agent.
    Cocky, smug, ignores what he doesn’t want to hear from his constituents.
    Based on on recent history and the crap he was complicit in making up for their George Barich hatchet job; corrupt too.

    People like this (he’s not alone) are very dangerous to our freedoms and property rights.

    God help anyone who wants to do business in Cotati. The jack program they’ll put you through will give you whip lash.

    They don’t want to approve anything, they’re waiting for their Smart Growth Plan Bay Area to come in with all that grant money.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  2. Grapevines says:

    Who’s going to be forking up the salaries of all these soon to be overpaid and compensated bureaucrats when everyone “opts out” of this ponzi scheme??

    Captain Underpants???

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Elephant says:

    “You get what you pay for,” said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, noting Syphers’ stated wish to hire experienced staffers in the energy field.

    Not so fast there, Mr. Mayor. My version of that is “you sometimes get more than what you pay for, but you often get less” Sonoma Dirty Power is all about getting less than what you pay for.

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  4. They spend other peoples money freely says:

    Sonoma Clean Power is starting off on another wrong foot: over-juiced salaries and compensation packages, underperforming websites and sloppy public accountability.

    This comes after the Supes threatened Santa Rosa and other cities to sign on the dotted line with very little time to review the documents and contracts, then announcing, “oh, never mind!” They won’t start delivering power until next May, not the fake January 1st drop deadline. And Syphers knew that January was a fake deadline.

    Syphers and county counsel Shupe have NO experience running an electric utility, but are getting paid extremely well with ratepayer money of course.

    The Board of Directors needs to step up to the real job of learning how to manage a runaway train, create a business plan now (not scheduled til late next year), reign in the designated explainer-in-chief, and make sure that they know where every penny of public money is going, why its being spent, and that it performs as promised.

    If Syphers can’t even get a good website and pr machine at a good price, not only has he wasted a quarter-million dollars of ratepayers money, but he’s showing no ability to buy electricity in a tough competitive and complex market dominated by energy companies that dwarf the buying power and smarts of Sonoma Clean Energy.

    this is a terrible start, people.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1

  5. Henry Bernard says:

    “You get what you pay for,” said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, noting Syphers’ stated wish to hire experienced staffers in the energy field.

    Mayor Landman hits the nail on the head. It’s not his fault the general electorate fails to understand an obvious correlation between public service compensation and public debt. The greater the compensation package, the greater the debt creation to justify that compensation. What better way to communicate to a constituency that you’re earning your keep.

    If compensation of x results in debt of 10x then compensation of 10x necessarily demands debt of 100x. It’s exponential, folks. All that debt must be realizing benefit, regardless quantitative, or qualitative evaluation. If a guy’s writing checks, he’s getting things done. He’s proactive, visionary. It’s not his fault we, mired in ignorance, fail to understand.

    The problem, as Mr. Landsman understands and you don’t, is not results, but budgets. The greater the budget, the greater the responsibility, the greater the necessary compensation to attract ‘those worth paying for’. Simplistically, the more I spend OPM the more I get paid. And rightfully so.

    Those who complain are stuck in the rut of expectation. They foolishly embrace a belief in quality, in accountability, in benefit, in public service wisdom. This makes me chuckle, wisdom.

    You get what you pay for only after you get what you vote for. So enough with all the belly aching. You hired them, handed them the keys. So they emptied the wine celler, stripped the pantry and sold all the appliances. What did you expect?. You got what you paid for and they gave to you good and hard. Sorry that you’re walking kinda funny.

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  6. observer says:

    Hi Originalist

    May I comment on your comment?

    The money guys who will support (or not) Sonoma Clean Power might more typically be found in the ranks of investment bankers, private equity and boutique energy project finance houses. Those folks get paid, in the junior ranks, $200,000 a year; and in the senior ranks several million dollars a year. Your reference to compensation for bankers may relate to local commercial bankers, who don’t get paid much. They don’t get paid much because they’re not taking much risk. They source funds on the cheap because they’re insured by the FDIC. For example in the case of the local bank funding Sonoma CLean Power, they’re overseen, among others, by the FDIC. And when they take real risk–especially in the wake of the recent market meltdown–they get in hot water. The local bank has a de facto if not hard legal guarantee by the County of Sonoma for the loan they’re making. Which means the taxpayers and rate payers are on the nook for Sonoma Clean Power, not the local bank. Which of course contradicts the public relations surrounding Sonoma Clean Power. And constitutes a precursor of things to come: big risk, big lies in connection with Sonoma Clean Power.

    Here’s the good news. The providers of serious capital for billion dollar undertakings like Sonoma Clean Power get paid a lot of money because they understand risk. And the first thing they will look at in Sonoma Clean Power is management and governance. And what they will see is one of the most corrupt and mismanaged County governments in the State of California; and a management team who would do credit to a Three Stooges script, replete with forked-finger “boinks” from Moe to Curly. The Water Agency is staffed at the middle level by people who actually know how to use an excel spread sheet. The senior guys are apparatchiks; they were selected because of their willingness to act as bagmen for the County insiders; they are technically clueless; and the new team in Sonoma Clean Power has zero zilch nada for operating experience./ The professional money people–the risk takers-will take one look at this feckless collection of graft-mongers and head the other direction. In other words, the capital markets–based on rational self interest–will act as a natural constraint on the Three Stooges script being played out in Sonoma Clean Power. As our dauntless crew of knucklehead leaders figure this out, here’s what will happen: they will convince the Board of Puppets (oops, Supervisors) to create a County guarantee, in some form or fashion, for the billion dollar Visa card that our County leaders intend for SOnoma Clean Power.

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  7. Originalst says:

    Bankers make decisions in which hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line and I know very few making what these people are suggesting. And they get fewer and less bennies.
    Soldiers make decisions that involve life and death and make no where near this.
    The problem is OPM, other peoples money, and or local govts have shown no respect or regard for their money! To be honest I care less what other counties pay as other counties don’t have the same tax base as this county. How is it Santa Rosa starts police and fire personal at higher levels than New York City?

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 1

  8. James Bennett says:

    A little propaganda piece to instill the notion that there’s a ‘rub’, a real effort to be fiscally responsible.
    Nothing could be further from the truth.
    Same benefits as Smart?

    Ever notice local government is always finding black holes to throw money at, or indebt us?
    “Studies”, consultants (ICLEI consultants of course), “projects”, new City Hall, bike bridge, casino.
    Land aquisitions for corridors directly out of the UNs Wildland Project (search).

    Qualifying for grants to install hardscape for their feel good projects.

    They seldom make us feel good.

    They make UN globalists feel good though.

    It’s an “arcane and highly confusing area.”

    I’m not confused, I’m pissed.

    2 things to remember:
    -The Agenda is about deliberately crashing.
    -These officials aren’t installed based on traditional qualifications; they’re installed because they’ll go with the program.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4

  9. Greg Karraker says:

    Syphers was satisfied with MIG’s small, insipid, obscenely overpriced website?

    I write websites and tv commercials for a living, and my fees are at the high end of the scale. But if I were estimating this finished project, I would say ten days for one writer, max, ten days for one art director, max, and five days for one producer. Even at $1500/day each, that’s $37,500.

    Even worse, MIG looks to have made this site from a WordPress template.

    If a small company from Berkeley can fleece Syphers this badly, imagine the fun the EVPs at energy companies will have with him. He’ll look like a baby seal being batted around by a couple of Great Whites.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 1

  10. WoW says:

    WOW!! It’s just amazing that a racket like this exists let alone gets passed. Stuff like this gives everything “green” a bad name.Crazy.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0

  11. Elephant says:

    Steveguy – Can I be your assistant? I’ll only charge the county $50k per year… as long as I get the same benefits as you.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  12. observer says:

    One wonders if absolute compensation levels should be the focus.

    Isn’t the more pressing question: what outcomes do we want to create in Sonoma Clean Power, and what’s that worth to us?

    One might argue that if we were able to lower County-wide CO2 emissions to 25% below 1990 levels, to 2.7 metric million metric tons per year—our County wide and city-agreed goal—increase clean energy investments to $10 billion without using public funds and increase Countywide jobs by 20,000 (1% of our total employment base of 200,000), then such outcome should easily be worth $1 million a year in CEO salary.

    Then decrements to such outcomes should be paid accordingly; including this: if our local CO2 emissions go up, if employment remains stagnant; if our public balance sheet debt increases instead of creating attractive ways to bring in private capital, then we should pay our CEO next to nothing the first year with a warning; then fire him if he doesn’t perform in the second year.

    Of course there’s a couple of challenges with this approach.

    It entails transparency. And worse. It presumes Sonoma Clean Power has any worldly intention of actually lowering CO2 emissions IN SONOMA COUNTY; of actually moving the needle on local employment; of actually mitigating the public’s risk of a ballooning balance sheets on top of pensions and roads.

    Sonoma Clean Power’s sole reason for existence is milking the public treasury to funnel skim, graft and no-bid contracts to the two score or so County insiders who control Sonoma Clean Power through the puppet show of the Board of Supervisors , the Water Agency, and the Clean Power board of directors.

    Oh, and one other thing. In the real world, power companies are run by operating executives.

    As the good folks at Healdsburg/NCPA and PG&E are watching Sonoma Clean Power unfold, they are attempting to restrain their astonishment at seeing a Three Stooges comedy play out, on a billion dollar budget: no one—underscore NO ONE—associated with Sonoma Clean Power—no one on its board, no one in the Water Agency, no one on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, no one on the staff of Sonoma Clean Power, a none of its consultants, has ever run a power company.

    In fact, has ever run a venture larger than a lemonade stand that has any accountability to end users.

    The geniuses at the Water Agency think power is like water. Oh, we screwed up? No problem, just lie about it and raise the rates.

    Doesn’t work that way when you don’t have the Russian River equivalent of natural gas, thermal, wind or other gushing resource under your control.

    If you don’t control a resource, you have to go out in the real world and compete with some high IQ, Darwinian road tested folks to get power.

    Sonoma Clean Power is not a high IQ Darwinian road tested cadre of dedicated public servants. It’s Three Stooges on a billion dollar Visa Card. Which will get misused, with the public holding the bag—on top of pensions and roads.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 2

  13. steveguy says:

    I will take the Assistant to the Assistant’s Deputy Director of Non-Operations for only $185,000 plus health care for life and 8 weeks of paid vacation, 20 sick days and 40 comp days, besides working from home. My car allowance should be a minimum of $2,000 a month, as a noble public servant like me should have a nice ride !

    Deal ?

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 0

  14. Emerson Burkett says:

    Who checks the thumbs down on the first two posts, which I found to be perfectly reasonable commentary? My guess is The County has SHILLS who come on the site to undermine legitimate commentators. I realize that not everyone shares my opinions, but, cannot shake the feeling there are shills for County marking thumbs down; have noticed a lot while reading comments posted on WSC. Perfectly reasonable questions and/or comments that may be counter to what the County wants to put out. I agree with the first two posters; these positions do not need to be budget-busting salaries and compensation. That said, I have felt all along that everything to do with “Sonoma Greed Power” would be over the top expensive.

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  15. Greg Karraker says:

    Skeptics of Sonoma Ponzi Power should watch Landman’s opinions very carefully. He thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to pay his city manager a total of $213,000 in salary and benefits, then give her a leased car, plus five staffers, one with a package near $150,000, and the other four well above $150,000. Of course this is for a town of 6800, whose city hall is closed every Friday. As this financial wizard says, “You get what you pay for.”

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 4

  16. Redwood says:

    Just because power industry employees are overpaid when they deliver basic utilities to the masses does not mean that the alternative government provider of those same services need to be overpaid.

    They are not producing or actively pricing the goods to be provided; they are only resellers.

    The Marin case was weird because you had a county planner employee, well below the level of director, all of a sudden make a huge salary and benefits package. Her job was to take consultant reports and bleat out the summaries at public meetings of like-minded people. This should not pay $200,000 per year.

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