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.

But 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.

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