Pacific Gas & Electric Co., having abruptly pulled out of a Sebastopol forum on the merits of its SmartMeters, has announced it will stage one of its own.
The utility will conduct the public meeting from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at the Veterans Hall in Sebastopol.
The announcement on Friday came after PG&E was criticized by Sonoma County and Sebastopol officials for the utility company's last-minute decision to pull out of a public forum focusing on its controversial SmartMeters. The event Wednesday night drew about 300 people.
"I was not only disappointed, I was insulted," said Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who had organized the session. "We had planned this weeks ago. We had been working with PG&E staff to provide experts; they had been slated to be there."
The utility was to be present to address concerns of residents about the installation of the new energy monitoring meters. Some critics worry of potential health hazards from the devices, which employ wireless communication technology.
Spokesman Paul Moreno said the decision was made when it became apparent that the public was going to be allowed to speak directly to PG&E rather than just hand in questions on 3-by-5 inch cards.
"We learned the meeting format changed that we no longer felt we could have a meaningful dialogue," Moreno said Friday.
Moreno said the company will have tables set up and experts on hand to answer questions for anyone who shows up between 5 and 10 p.m.
Their withdrawal from Wednesday's forum frustrated Sebastopol officials, who said they already were feeling powerless to compel PG&E to be responsive because the state Public Utilities Commission has approved the meter replacement program.
"There is nothing local we can do, we don't have legal standing other than to voice an opinion," said Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer. "It's an unfortunate decision. You have to face your critics, no matter who you are."
Ninety minutes before the forum was supposed to start Wednesday night, PG&E notified Carrillo that it would not provide its experts for the panel nor staff members for information tables.
Carrillo had organized the meeting at the Sebastopol Veterans Hall for citizens to get information about the meters and discuss their concerns. He said he won't call for another hearing and Sebastopol city officials don't expect the issue to return to the City Council.
"It was a political calculation by PG&E not to show up," said Sebastopol Vice Mayor Guy Wilson said. "They initially said they would be there and then they chickened out. I guess they felt that whatever negative reaction from not showing up was preferable to an even worse public response if they did show up."
<NO1><NO>PG&E has begun replacing all 379,592 meters in Sonoma County with the SmartMeters, which use wireless technology to transmit the readings of electricity and gas use to a central location.
Moreno said 11 percent have been installed, but none in Sebastopol and other parts of west Sonoma County. The installation work will continue through next February.
The meters have been controversial in some parts of California where billing accuracy has been questioned, prompting the state Public Utilities Commission to order an independent investigation, but this is the first time safety issues have been raised, commission spokesman Andrew Kotch said.