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Rohnert Park says no to joining public power agency


Rohnert Park on Tuesday became the second Sonoma County city to opt out of the first year of Sonoma Clean Power, while Santa Rosa's leaders continued to push back against the June 30 deadline set for the decision.

With the exception of Councilman Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park council members either flatly rejected joining the public power agency that intends to replace PG&E as the county's principal power supplier, or said they had too many unanswered questions.

"The government should stay out of this," said Vice Mayor Joe Callinan. "We have no place in the power business. We're having enough trouble paving our streets."

A conflicted Santa Rosa City Council, meanwhile, stressed that the June 30 deadline was not something it could meet because it hadn't finished hiring two separate consultants it needed to help it make up its mind.

"We'll get there when we get there, and hopefully it'll be soon," Mayor Scott Bartley said. "We are trying our best."

The vast majority of the City Council's four-hour special meeting Tuesday involved residents and advocates of Sonoma Clean Power urging the council to show some leadership and join the fledgling public power authority for its inaugural year.

Many of those who packed the council chambers held up bright signs that read "The Power of Choice. We want it. Please vote yes."

Tish Levee, a 73-year-old renter, said she's done everything she can to reduce her greenhouse gas emissions, including not driving a car and turning down her thermostat. But as a renter, she can't install a solar array to lower her electricity emissions further, and she said she would gladly join the authority to accomplish that goal.

"Please give me and all of your constituents the choice to have cleaner energy and reduce global warming by voting for Sonoma Clean Power," Levee said.

Advocates ticked off a litany of benefits they said the authority would bring to participants, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, giving residents an important choice, breaking up PG&E's monopoly on power markets and reinvesting money into the community instead of lining shareholders' pockets.

Others, however, urged the council to be cautious. Resident Maureen Middlebrook applauded council members for taking their time and hiring consultants to help get their questions answered before making a decision.

"You're opting all of us into a program and that's a huge responsibility," Middlebrook said.

Sonoma Clean Power officials have said Santa Rosa, which represents nearly 35 percent of PG&E electric meters in the county, would be an important partner because its residents and businesses would give the authority greater leverage to negotiate lower rates with power suppliers.

Some characterized the city's participation as vital.

"Buy-in from the largest city in the county is critical," said Debbie Meekins, president and chief executive of First Community Bank, which has agreed to lend the authority the startup money it needs.

Council members are well aware that the authority desperately wants Santa Rosa to participate, but the pressure to do so is creating a rift on the council between those who want to act now and those urging a more deliberate course.

Councilwoman Julie Combs expressed concern that the city was hiring not one but two consultants to help its three-member subcommittee answer outstanding questions.

"It really alarms me to hear that we're hiring a legal and a technical consultant," Combs said.

But Bartley stressed that the council couldn't possibly take a vote by June 30 because of the upcoming budget discussions and the need to put a discussion on the agenda.

"There just physically is not way we're going to do it," Bartley said. "Our processes won't allow us to move that fast."

Sonoma Clean Power consultant Geof Syphers said that because interest and power rates are on the rise, the authority would be "very concerned" if the process were delayed much past June 30. But Bartley called that "very disconcerting" to hear just two weeks after he heard authority officials stress a willingness to be flexible.

Combs suggested that the hiring of the consultants, one of which had been retained and the other of which has not, was slowing down the process and potentially jeopardizing the city's ability to meet the deadline. She noted the full council never voted to do so at the previous meeting.

She suggested the council set a vote for July 9, but City Attorney Caroline Fowler explained the council could not take any action at the meeting.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he was "a little bit at a loss" to understand the city's inability to make a decision in time given that the city had been involved in the authority's steering committee for two years. But he said if the city could be clear about how much additional time it needed, it's possible the authority "would be able to potentially involve you" in the first year's roll-out.

But Bartley said the council can't provide that timeline until it has a conversation with its consultants. Fowler indicated a legal consultant had been retained, but City Manager Kathy Millison said she couldn't speculate on when she might be able to hire the technical consultant.

In Rohnert Park, council members' concerns included what kind of weight the city's vote would carry on the power agency board, whether there would be unforeseen costs, and how residents would opt in or out.

"No one will say it's not in the best interests of the county," Councilman Amy Ahanotu said, "but costs are a concern. And we need to study it to make sure it benefits the city."

Mayor Pam Stafford said constituents have told her they are unhappy with the stipulation that residents would have to opt out of the plan if they wanted to stay with PG&E.

"Most of the people say, 'That's not a choice for me,' " Stafford said. "To me, opt-in is a choice."

She also said the council had just agreed to declare a fiscal emergency and said, "I just don't see us doing it by the end of June; I couldn't put that burden on our staff."

Mackenzie, a vocal advocate for the plan, said his colleagues' questions had all been well answered over the 2? years the plan has been prepared and in the past month of presentations by county officials.

"I am not convinced that there are any huge costs for which we will be responsible," he said.

But Mackenzie's motion to bring a resolution back to vote on before June 30 died for lack of a second.

However, a subsequent motion by Councilwoman Gina Belforte, to ask city staff to "vet out the questions" and return with a report at an unspecified later date, passed 3-2, with Mackenzie and Callinan voting "no."

"I'm very disappointed in the actions of my fellow councilmembers," Mackenzie said. "We're doing our citizens a disservice by not bringing this back to a vote."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@citybeater.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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CLARIFICATION: Added June 1, 2013

In a secondary vote, Tuesday, the Rohnert Park City Council voted to direct city staff to study Sonoma Clean Power and report back at a later date. A story posted on June 12, 2013. incorrectly described the vote.