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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.

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.)

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