The Sebastopol City Council decided Tuesday night it has no jurisdiction to stop PG&E from installing the controversial SmartMeters, afraid even trying could open up the city to costly legal bills.
"This is a problem on a state and national level," said Vice Mayor Guy Wilson. "We need reform in how utilities are regulated. The legal solution cannot be done at a local level. We'd only be passing a moratorium for political purposes."
By not taking any action, the council disappointed a crowd of 50 who urged the city to adopt a moratorium as other cities have done against the meters, which some blame for emitting radio waves that make some people ill.
"I am more concerned about the health of the people than what might happen in a court of law," said Alan Horn of Sebastopol. "We need to act to end this public health emergency."
SmartMeters are high-tech devices that transmit gas and electricity data by wireless transmission.
In Sebastopol, it has been a hot-button issue that Tuesday night was before the council for a fourth time, on each occasion drawing emotional testimony from often-angry crowds.
Wilson had asked city attorney Larry McLaughlin to research what jurisdiction the city might have in an attempt to end the debate.
McLaughlin told the council that PG&E's installation of SmartMeters was authorized within its franchise agreement with the city.
McLaughlin also said that even if the city passed a moratorium, as cities such as Watsonville and Fairfax have done, then the city would have to seek expensive civil remedies if PG&E chose to ignore the ban.
Sebastopol can't even afford the legal fees of trying to get an assessment of whether a moratorium was legally valid, McLaughlin said.
"It would be expensive, it would have to deal with the whole regulatory system in California, dealing with those old franchise laws and bringing them into the modern times," McLaughlin said.
Wilson said he knew it was not what the audience wanted to hear.
"I know what is happening in the court of public opinion, but my concern is what will happen in a court of law," Wilson said. "If we did go to court, we would probably lose."
Members of the audience, however, urged the council to enact a moratorium, not believing that PG&E would challenge the city.
"It is important to take a stand, even if it is not enforceable," said Dave Hubert. "We don't have to go to court to win, we just have to take a stand."
Council members said they felt taking any action would only put the city at risk.
"I don't believe the City Council passing a moratorium will stop it," said Councilwoman Linda Kelley. "It would only be symbolic."
Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer said she has also heard from residents on the other side of the argument, from those who want the meters to help better regulate their energy use.
"I have to speak for everybody, I can't just represent one group," Shaffer said. "I believe that if you want to opt out, you should. But I can't put the city in jeopardy."
Mayor Sarah Gurney was the only council member to favor a moratorium and also said she didn't believe the city would be sued.