Sonoma Clean Power clears way for Santa Rosa

Board members overseeing Sonoma County's startup public power agency unanimously approved a revised governing agreement Thursday, satisfying Santa Rosa's core concerns and paving the way for the county's largest city to officially join the venture Tuesday.

The move settles what had been a two-month standoff over Santa Rosa's role in the launch of Sonoma Clean Power and finalizes the list of five cities participating in the first-year rollout, set to start in January.

Government officials and power agency supporters in the audience applauded the 5-0 vote adopting a revised joint-powers agreement, the most significant business in the new entity's third public meeting.

"It's really terrific to now have a real start to this agency," Geof Syphers, interim CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, said in an interview. "We know who is participating and we're moving forward with all the planning and negotiations."

The decision came after power agency staff for the first time voiced optimism that Santa Rosa's participation may very well result in lower customer rates. They have previously downplayed the potential impact of any discount based on a larger overall customer base.

But Syphers said a new calculation this month by John Dalessi, the agency's chief negotiator and a consultant for Marin's public power program, showed that under the current makeup Santa Rosa would immediately boost Sonoma Clean Power's potential electricity load by 75 percent, expanding the scale of the venture and "dramatically" increasing interest from power suppliers.

"That ultimately does convert into some lower rate," Syphers said. "When I asked what kind of lower rate, he (Dalessi) said it's impossible to know."

Several county supervisors said the point clarified something that had seemed evident to them all along, bolstering their push to incorporate Santa Rosa for its 97,000 metered customers and political sway.

"In terms of our launch and getting the best rates for our constituents, it was very, very critical that Santa Rosa came on board," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes most of central Santa Rosa.

The public program — intended as an alternative to PG&E — is designed to boost use of renewable power sources, including local projects, and shrink the county's carbon footprint.

Supporters voiced relief that the standoff over Santa Rosa's participation appeared to be over.

"It's almost anticlimactic after the drama of July," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, a Santa Rosa-based group that has helped develop the initiative. "But all is well that ends well."

Notably absent from the meeting was Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a force in pushing the power program to fruition over the past three years. The 32-year-old supervisor has dropped out of public business after his July 13 arrest on suspicion of burglary and prowling. His attorney and friends say he is in treatment for what they've described as a drinking problem.

Carrillo was one of several county supervisors angling to fill one of two county seats on the power board starting next week. That selection is now unlikely, a fact hammered home by one of Carrillo's vocal critics Thursday.

During the public comment period, Sebastopol resident Colleen Fernald called Carrillo's alleged conduct "beyond unbecoming" and argued that his selection would be "too much of a risk for the important work that this board needs to do."

Board members were silent on the issue, though Chairman David Rabbitt acknowledged Supervisor Susan Gorin's presence at the meeting as an alternate in Carrillo's absence. Rabbitt has said he may make a statement about arrest at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.

The most significant changes approved for Sonoma Clean Power will give Santa Rosa an extra board seat — equal to the county's two seats going forward in the first year — add other protections for ratepayers and establish a clearer path for cities to avoid financial penalties if they choose to withdraw from the agency.

The revisions were sought by a unanimous Santa Rosa City Council earlier this month, throwing their potential participation into limbo. Syphers, in a last-ditch deal two weeks ago, agreed to recommend them to the power agency board.

Thursday's consensus seemed to validate Santa Rosa's hardened stance.

"We as a council worked well together," said Councilwoman Julie Combs. "We did a lot of homework and we are all going to be better off because we did."

Also adopted was a governance change backed by small cities that would limit the combined weighted voting power of the county and Santa Rosa, the two dominant power markets.

Representatives of Sebastopol and Cotati — which along with Sonoma and Santa Rosa are set to join the board next week — raised no further protests about being in the audience Thursday. They also welcomed the changes sought by Santa Rosa.

"They've made the joint-powers agreement much stronger," said Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes. "I appreciate that they took the time and spent the money to do this thing right."

Windsor joined the agency in May and already has a seat on the board. Cloverdale, Rohnert Park and Petaluma have elected not to participate for now.

In closed session, the board negotiated and set Syphers' compensation over the next six months, agreeing on pay of $85,000 and benefits worth $34,000.

The power agency's next scheduled meeting is 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Board of Supervisors chambers.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or

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