By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Geof Syphers, the interim chief executive of Sonoma County’s startup public power agency since July, has been given the job on a permanent basis, Sonoma Clean Power announced Friday.
Syphers, 43, will go to work Jan. 3 under a three-year contract. His starting salary will be $205,000.
A former sustainability expert for Codding Enterprises, the Rohnert Park development firm, Syphers has been involved in Sonoma Clean Power from its earliest formal stages, starting as a consultant to the county Water Agency in 2012.
As the acting CEO in recent months he has played a central role in the program’s political, financial and operational development, juggling roles as its top administrator, lead spokesman and key negotiator in crucial power supply contracts.
On Friday he called the job “the most challenging and most rewarding experience I’ve had in my work life.”
The power agency intends to begin electricity service in May, marketing a product that supporters say will be greener than energy supplied by PG&E and competitive with the utility giant’s rates.
Draft retail rates unveiled this week could end up beating those proposed by PG&E next year, offering the first wave of customers some modest savings on their electricity bill.
Still, the effort has been questioned by some city officials, fiscal watchdogs and skeptical customers.
Syphers, trained as an engineer with a background in energy, has proven himself to be a collaborative leader and “careful communicator” while leading the new agency through rocky recent months, said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, Sonoma Clean Power’s chairwoman.
Gorin said the board of directors unanimously supported Syphers’ promotion. “He has performed admirably to meet all of our expectations,” she said.
Syphers immediately becomes one of the highest salaried officials in local government, though his current pay under the interim agreement is even greater, at $19,833 a month. That contract included no benefits.
His new contract calls for a set of raises and other pay increases tied to the agency’s ability to retain customers.
After the first guaranteed 3.5 percent increase in July, additional increases could boost his pay by up to 14 percent through 2016.
In negotiating Syphers’ salary, Gorin said officials looked at several other government agencies but found few comparable positions. The post that most closely resembles Syphers’ job, Gorin said, is Dawn Weisz’s post as executive officer for Marin Clean Energy. Weisz is paid $247,500 annually and has benefits worth $30,316.
“The board immediately rejected that as a comparable. We didn’t even look at that,” Gorin said.
Syphers will also receive a benefits package of $36,000. Most local government employees, including rank and file workers, have benefit packages worth more than that, with top officials getting packages two to three times as costly.
Syphers, who will not receive a traditional defined benefit pension, said the lower benefits package sets “a new paradigm” for local public agencies.
He also noted that his pay will not be covered by taxpayers but by customers who can opt out, thus tying his compensation — low for a top official in the energy sector, he said — with the viability of the venture.
He described the job as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’m looking forward to creating a clean energy economy for our community,” he said.