The prospects for Santa Rosa joining the launch of Sonoma Clean Power dimmed Tuesday after the City Council strongly signaled it won't participate unless several changes to the agency's governing structure are met prior to a July 9 vote.
The move upped the ante in the high-stakes game of power politics that's been going on for weeks between Sonoma County and its largest city, which is considered a key to the program's long-term success.
"It is disappointing," said Cordell Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency and the lead staff member on the proposal, after he left the council meeting. "The best way to influence the process is to be a part of it."
Meanwhile, Sebastopol's City Council voted 4-1 to join the agency late Tuesday night, with Councilman John Eder casting the lone no vote. The city joins Windsor, Cotati and unincorporated Sonoma County as inaugural members of the agency.
"We can give people options," Councilman Robert Jacob said just before the vote at 11 p.m. "Anybody who doesn't want Sonoma Clean Power can opt out."
Most Santa Rosa council members made it clear they couldn't support joining the fledgling public power agency until numerous changes are made to the language outlining how the joint powers authority would be structured, financed and operated.
Asked why Santa Rosa should be given greater consideration than other cities, Councilman Gary Wysocky responded, "because Santa Rosa actually had the resources to do the analysis."
The three-member council subcommittee, which has been meeting in private for weeks, outlined a litany of concerns it said need to be addressed before the city makes a final decision, not after.
In a memo to the full council, the subcommittee argued "this is when the City has the leverage to make effective changes or resolve its concerns."
The subcommittee stressed that Sonoma Clean Power, which seeks to offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to PG&E, could potentially become a startup government agency with $172 million in revenue.
"In light of the magnitude of such a business venture, the committee is concerned about the lack of detail and specifics of a business plan, including the long-term financing and operational plans," the committee wrote.
Given this lack of information, the committee said that it could not be certain that the authority would actually reduce greenhouse gases, lower rates or create local jobs.
Councilwoman Robin Swinth explained that an even bigger fear is that if the city did join and things started to "go south" for the agency, ratepayers might be saddled with soaring costs.
"Passing huge expenses onto the ratepayers is politically untenable," Swinth observed.
Faced with such a situation, the committee worries that Santa Rosa might be pressured to post bonds or otherwise take financial steps to prevent huge rate hikes.
"You will find a lot of political pressure to agree," in such a situation, predicted Michael Dean, general counsel to the Northern California Power Agency who was hired by the city as a legal consultant. "That's really where the rubber will hit the road."
Dean also expressed concern that the city could be hit with substantial "exit fees" if it decides to join the program but then changes its mind and wants to withdraw.
Councilwoman Julie Combs said she had been told such fees could be in the "tens of millions of dollars." Dean would say only that if that happened the costs "would have the potential to be very large."