One day last week a PG&E employee was working in a Sebastopol neighborhood when, in response to a neighbor's 911 call, he was approached by a police officer and directed to leave.
What was his crime? Possession of a SmartMeter — with intent to install it.
It's hardly the kind of thing that warrants dialing 911. But under an ordinance approved by the Sebastopol City Council on Feb. 21, it's now punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Sebastopol is not the first city in California to pass a moratorium on SmartMeters. Some 50 other communities have similar ordinances. But Sebastopol appears to have the distinction of being the first to actually send out a police officer to enforce it.
This caused enough of a stir at the utility company that it dispatched two teams of company officials on Wednesday — one to meet with city officials and another to meet with PG&E line crews and assure them that getting cited or harassed won't be part of their regular job responsibilities.
Helen Burt, PG&E's chief customer officer, who met with employees, noted that this situation was a big deal to workers who "are in a bit of a no-win situation." They want to do their jobs — the vast majority of which is unrelated to SmartMeters — but at the same time they don't want to be stalked.
The California Public Utilities Commission has already sent a letter to Sebastopol officials making clear that the moratorium is "unlawful and unenforceable."
"That said, we don't want to be at war with our communities," noted Burt.
Thankfully Sebastopol city officials have wisely — if temporarily — decided to stop enforcing its moratorium on the installation of SmartMeters, recognizing that it leaves the city on shaky legal ground. And it is waging its fight in the venue where it belongs, before the Public Utilities Commission.
Meanwhile, PG&E has stopped all utility work in Sebastopol, including work on the $23.5 million Barlow project. As of Thursday, it was not clear when work would resume on anything but emergency repairs and gas lines.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue again during closed session on March 14 at City Hall.
SmartMeter opponents claim the electromagnetic frequencies that the devices emit cause anything from cancer to severe headaches. Although it's not clear how these frequencies are different from similar emissions that are around us in abundance from, among other things, radios and cell phones, we won't begin to try to change anyone's mind about the science of this. We just hope reason will prevail and the situation won't be allowed to escalate.
Sebastopol residents have more effective ways of protesting SmartMeters — by sending comments to the state PUC and by opting out of having them. The cost is $75 up front and $10 a month. SmartMeters already have been installed on 7,500 of the 22,800 gas and electrical connections in Sebastopol. And so far only about 10 percent of customers have opted out.
Clearly, not everyone is spoiling for a SmartMeter fight, let alone escalating one.