PD Editorial: Santa Rosa raises important questions

The campaign to launch a power agency in Sonoma County has come to a critical juncture when its authenticity will be tested. By that we mean, the county Board of Supervisors and other advocates of Sonoma Clean Power will show whether their goal is to make something viable or sell something that gives the impression of doing good for the environment.<NO1><NO>

The juncture comes because of some sobering issues raised by the Santa Rosa City Council.

If Sonoma Clean Power is be both financially and politically viable, the participation of Santa Rosa is critical. Santa Rosa represents 34 percent of the power sold by PG&E in the county, equal to all the power used by the unincorporated parts of the county. The supervisors have already committed the unincorporated areas. The cities of Cotati, Windsor and, as of Tuesday night, Sebastopol have joined the authority as well. But Santa Rosa needs to be a partner if Sonoma Clean Power is going to start off on the right foot and have the heft it needs to negotiate power contracts.

Santa Rosa officials clearly recognize this and have made a good faith effort to meet the county's deadlines while also doing their due diligence. Despite being given just two months to make a formal decision on whether to join Sonoma Clean Power, the council has moved quickly. It made time for a formal public hearing, formed a subcommittee to look at the details and hired two consultants to give input on the the risks to the city. The council's intent has been to vote to join the system by Tuesday. But during the course of its analysis, a number of red flags appeared. Last week, the council made clear that it wants those red flags addressed before it agrees to being part of the system.

These issues include:

<BL@199,12,11,10>The lack of a business plan, including specifics on long-term financing, for a start-up government agency with the potential for $172 million in revenue. Because of this, the council's subcommittee concluded that it could not be certain whether the authority would actually reduce greenhouse gases, lower rates or create many local jobs.

<BL@199,12,11,10>The need for more ratepayer protections against soaring costs if the system starts to implode. The council also wants the authority to require that members of Sonoma Clean Power ratepayer advocates panel be removed only by a two-thirds majority of the authority board instead of a simple majority.

<BL@199,12,11,10>The city says it should have as many seats as the county on the authority board, a concern made more legitimate by the confusion that revolved around the seating of the Windsor representative at the authority meeting in late June.

<BL@199,12,11,10>The council also wants to see changes to the joint powers agreement to require unanimous votes for changing the agreement, using the authority's power of eminent domain and other critical decisions.

The council subcommittee also found a big hole in the county's argument that cities should join the authority first so they can help answer their own questions later. The problem: Opting out will be neither cheap nor easy for cities once they've joined. In fact, as City Councilwoman Julie Combs pointed out, the cost of withdrawing could be in the "tens of millions" of dollars.

Thus, the council is justified in wanting its concerns addressed before joining. More important, its questions need to be take seriously if this endeavor is to be taken seriously.

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