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A tussle for control over the future of Sonoma Clean Power dominated the agency's first public meeting Tuesday, with county officials rejecting for now a request by smaller cities for more say over how the agency is governed.

The decision was a clear sign of how strongly the county is courting Santa Rosa, the largest urban power market. Under current weighted voting rules, Santa Rosa would retain the ability to join the unincorporated county — the other dominant power market — in pushing through governance changes over the objection of all other cities.

Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, whose districts include most of Santa Rosa, lobbied to postpone any decision on altering that control, saying cities could take it up once they joined.

Zane minced no words about the motivation for her stance, calling Santa Rosa the "biggest player" in the power deal.

"Do I care about whether it joins? Absolutely, I do," Zane said in an interview after the board vote.

Representatives of smaller cities that wanted that provision changed voiced disappointment that it wasn't and suggested it would affect upcoming decisions on whether their jurisdictions would join the power venture. Commitments from Cotati, Sebastopol and Sonoma are on the line this week and next month.

"This was a critical concern not just for us but for any cities smaller than Santa Rosa," Cotati Mayor Mark Landman said. "Since the joint powers authority has tabled this issue, I'm not sure where this leads us."

Erin Carlstrom, the Santa Rosa vice mayor, said the decision avoided what she called a "fundamental change" that would have "diluted the voice of Santa Rosans" and complicated the City Council's July 9 decision on whether to join the venture.

Carlstrom said she had talked to Zane about the amendment Monday night. She said it was unfair to make the change before Santa Rosa and other cities had a chance to debate it.

"I think we're going to disagree on this," Carlstrom said, speaking for herself and not the full council. At least two of Santa Rosa's seven council members, Gary Wysocky and Julie Combs, have voiced support for the change.

The issue overshadowed other business and governance decisions Tuesday geared toward Sonoma Clean Power's Jan. 1 launch. The moves included approval of $2.5 million in startup financing for the venture and adoption of several uncontested changes to the agency's joint-powers agreement relating to curbs on financial risk and composition of a ratepayer advisory committee.

The agency seeks to displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as the area's main electricity supplier by offering competitive rates and an immediately greener energy portfolio.

The program has been championed for years by advocates seeking to boost locally generated renewable power. It has been a county-driven initiative since 2011.

Its implementation this year, however, has been dogged by criticism from government watchdogs, cities' concerns about a fast-paced rollout and allegations of miscommunication among elected county and city leaders and their staffs.

Of the eight cities being courted by the county, three — Cloverdale, Rohnert Park and Petaluma — have opted out of the venture for now.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt, who has been alone among his board colleagues in wanting the process slowed, blamed the county Tuesday for many of the problems.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

"If you're selling a product, the onus is on the seller, not the buyer," Rabbitt said. "We're trying to sell a product here. To blame the cities for not participating or listening, I think, is not accurate."

County supervisors relinquished their sole control over the power agency Tuesday, bringing on a representative from Windsor, the only city so far to formally join the venture.

Yet the underlying tug-of-war among cities and the county complicated even that simple change for more than an hour.

Gorin, who was set to step down to make way for Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie, requested the board delay that action until she could formally weigh in on the voting issue.

The result was an awkward compromise: Okrepkie was seated, though only in an advisory role, while supervisors debated the proposed governance amendments. They voted 4-1, with Rabbitt dissenting, to adopt a revised joint-powers agreement without the amended voting provision.

Rabbitt said he was in favor of approving the change requested by smaller cities Tuesday. Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike McGuire indicated they were ready to support it as well.

"It is absolutely necessary to have the cities on board for the success, long-term, of this venture," said McGuire, who proposed the compromise adopted by the board.

Gorin, a former Santa Rosa councilwoman, said she favored postponing a vote on the issue to allow it to resurface later on the authority board, along with other city concerns she said she'd heard.

"I'm not rejecting the new language. I'm simply stating that there are just a number of concerns and questions out there," she said, citing ratepayer protection and open government issues as examples.

She said she had not been lobbied on the issue by Santa Rosa council members.

Leaders of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the environmental group that has pressed the county for other governance changes, stayed out of the debate Tuesday, saying they were working with supervisors to address their request for greater citizen oversight.

County officials and power agency supporters also noted that a revision to the joint-powers agreement approved Tuesday guarantees that any city that joins by July 9 will have its suggestions taken up by the agency board within its first three meetings.

That window could resolve the standoff over governance changes, agency supporters suggested.

"This is a period of creation and it's hard to create the rules without the rules," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, a key power agency supporter.

"It's also hard to create the rules without the participants," added Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the county Water Agency and the lead staff member on the proposal.

But without a change to the current weighted voting rules, the two largest participants — the county and, potentially, Santa Rosa — will always have final say, critics said.

"Any reduction in Sonoma's influence is a concern," said Sonoma Mayor Ken Brown, the swing vote in his city's decision next month.

The message to small cities amounts to "just join us and trust us and then we'll consider your changes," said Anne Seeley, a Santa Rosa community activist. "I don't think that's going to fly."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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