After two weeks of conferring with city councils throughout Sonoma County, county officials have managed to recruit but one city in launching a new power agency. And that came on a split 3-2 vote by the Windsor City Council.
That's hardly a ringing endorsement for a complex initiative that in short order will be generating annual revenues of up to $170 million. But the limited success so far is probably more a commentary on the hurried process than on the proposal itself.
The majority of elected officials — including those from Santa Rosa and Cotati this week — have made clear they support the concept of an agency that would give consumers a choice of power providers. But many of them said they needed more information and more time to discuss it, even if it risked missing the county's deadline of June 30 for joining the Sonoma Clean Power Authority.
As Santa Rosa City Councilman Jake Ours put it, "I've got to make sure it's right for our city. And I'm not there yet."
As we've said before, the county is at risk of undermining the success of this initiative with a timeline that leaves local decision-makers little opportunity to analyze the data themselves, get answers to their questions and hear from the public before committing their residents and businesses to being part of the system. County officials would be wise to give the cities the time they need to make sure it's right for them.
At the least, Sonoma Clean Power needs the participation of Santa Rosa, the county's largest city, if it's to maintain its political, if not economic, viability. Santa Rosa and the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County comprise roughly two-thirds of the utility connections in the county.
Santa Rosa officials this week indicated a desire to make the June 30 deadline. But given the number of questions council members asked of staff, that they assigned a subcommittee of council members to address the issue and scheduled a full public hearing for late June, it's not clear whether that goal is achievable. One council member forwarded the laudable idea of seeking an independent legal and technical analysis of the Sonoma Clean Power plan, but that appeared to be shunted out of concern that there wasn't enough time. That's unfortunate.
Petaluma City Council members likewise had a number of questions, but they indicated they don't expect to make a decision until September at the earliest.
We understand the county's desire to take advantage of low rates for natural gas — which is expected to comprise a good portion of the county's energy portfolio — and to take advantage of low interest rates. We also understand the concerns that studies and debates by government bodies can drag on for too long. But that's hardly been the situation concerning Sonoma Clean Power, which the supervisors themselves didn't approve until April 23. They won't even make their last presentation to cities until June 3 when they go to Sonoma.
The county should do this right the first time and put an emphasis on unity above adherence to an artificial deadline.
While they give cities more time to get the answers they seek, county officials can devote themselves to giving the public better explanations as to the where bidders plan to get their energy and how dependent they will be on renewable energy credits. Meanwhile, they can also address fears smaller cities have raised about the county and Santa Rosa having veto power over authority decisions when and whether board members' votes are made on a per-capita basis.