The Sonoma Clean Power Authority promises us renewable, carbon-free electricity at competitive prices, with a choice of providers, local control, local generation and reduced greenhouse gases. The prospect of clean energy in Sonoma County is exciting, but first we must take the steps necessary to ensure a successful public utility is formed.

Will the new government agency protect the ratepayers and our environment from harm and waste? Is your money used wisely? Will we get what's promised?

Sonoma County Conservation Action strongly believes that green power plus clean government equals success.

The Sonoma Clean Power Authority is a new multi-billion-dollar agency, formed solely with your money. It will be larger and wealthier than Sonoma County Water Agency. But concerns abound. The legal contracts to join the joint powers authority should not yet be signed by cities without full disclosure, due diligence and open negotiations among all parties. Would any city ever approve a 30-acre shopping center without first examining and negotiating risks, benefits and responsibilities in public, very, very carefully? No way.

Yet a hard political campaign has targeted council members to hurry up, sign on to the binding joint powers agreement now and only seek improvements later. This isn't the time for used car salesmen's techniques. This is the time for thoughtful discussions and clear answers and negotiated changes to ensure that Sonoma Clean Power will protect all ratepayers from abuse, waste and insider dealing, so we get the reduced greenhouse gases promised with transparent government.

The Sonoma Clean Power Authority's governance and capabilities need these fixes:

; The power to use eminent domain to take private property should be eliminated from the joint powers authority.

; The public's right to attend all directors' and committee meetings must be explicitly guaranteed under Brown Act open meeting laws (as as is the case with Marin County's joint powers authority).

; Ratepayers deserve strong protection. The joint powers authority has a ratepayer advisory committee, but its members can be dismissed at will by the board of directors, and its budget for auditing or oversight is very small.

Instead, we need a robust ratepayer advocates committee with adequate funds, expertise, independence and stability. This ensures they won't be fired or defunded when they challenge the directors' or executive officers' decisions on spending your money.

; The authority's directors would be council members and supervisors, already burdened with governing their cities, now taking on the intense job of governing a huge public utility. Adding three citizens to the board, free of political pressures, and paid part-time to be voting ombudsmen, would strengthen ratepayer and environmental protections and help generate public confidence absolutely necessary for Sonoma Clean Power's success.

; Nuclear, coal and salmon-harming small hydropower generation for electricity sources must be prohibited.

; Living wages and local jobs should be preferred in contracts.

Will millions of dollars in revenue above electricity costs be used to reduce rates? Will one class of ratepayers (e.g., residential) subsidize inducements and lower rates for others (e.g., commercial)?

Opting out is not adequate protection for ratepayers.

Costs not attributed to actually obtaining actual electricity should not be chargeable to ratepayers. Investments in local energy production or creation of new private corporations (allowed in Sonoma Clean Power Authority's joint powers authority but not in Marin Clean Energy's) must be scrutinized in public. Who governs them?

If one of Sonoma Clean Power Authority's enterprises fails to produce electricity, is sued or goes belly up, ratepayers should not be on the hook.

"Going green" isn't just a bumper sticker phrase. To be successful, Conservation Action believes that the business of green energy must also be clean. The time to negotiate that is now, before signing rigid contracts backed with ratepayers' money.

Bill Kortum is president emeritus and David Keller is board chairman of Sonoma County Conservation Action.