GULLIXSON: Now it's time for the cities to decide on public power plan

  • Paul Gullixson, The Press Democrat.

According to Civil War legend, Rear Admiral David Farragut was frustrated when one of his ships suddenly slowed during an assault on a small Confederate fleet and three forts during the pivotal Battle of Mobile Bay.

When he inquired, he was told that the ship cut speed due to naval mines in the waters — mines known as "torpedoes" — which had just claimed one of his warships. Farragut's famed response: "Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead."

Those exact words may not have been voiced during a landmark Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. But make no mistake, they could be heard. You could hear them in the passionate entreaty of Supervisor Efren Carrillo to his colleagues to press ahead with one of two major county-backed initiatives. He captured the significance of the vote, saying "This is really the county's moment ... and it's our future."

He is exactly right, but maybe not in the way he intended. This is certainly the county's moment when its ambitions will be put to the test.

That test will come, of all places, in the cities, those beastly independent communities that have been the source of such frustration for the county over the years regarding redevelopment, water, growth, water, garbage ... . Did I mention water? Those cities now essentially have veto power over two major county-driven initiatives. One involves giving up control of a major county asset — its central landfill off Mecham Road near Cotati — and handing its operations to a large corporation, Republic Services of Arizona, to operate for the next 20 to 30 years. The

other involves creating a power authority — Sonoma Clean Power — to give locals the option of buying more renewable energy than PG&E otherwise provides. The hope is the system also will foster the development of local solar, wind and other renewable power systems, reinvest profits in the community and create jobs.

Great idea. The problem is, as Californians have learned in suffering through the consequences of the state's costly attempts at deregulating energy markets and enhancing public employee pensions, there are torpedoes out there for bold initiatives that authorities claim won't cost the public a dime. And there's not a lot of enthusiasm right now for allowing government to launch into more.

The county has already done the heavy lifting on both initiatives. At Carrillo's encouraging, the supervisors, on a 4-1 vote, moved all of their chips to the center of the table on Tuesday. We're all in, they said. What say you, cities?

But here's the strange dichotomy. One proposal involves relinquishing control of a major public asset — a waste disposal site — and handing it over to a large private company. The other involves creating a new public agency to address a major public need — power — and taking control away from a large private company — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. One calls for essentially privatizing a public function. The other calls for doing the opposite.

Granted, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. The county would still officially own the landfill site. And PG&E would continue to handle billing, transmission, metering, customer service, all of the backbone issues. PG&E also would remain a competitor, providing power to those who opt out of the county's system.

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