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The Sonoma City Council overcame its previous division Monday and voted unanimously to join the Sonoma County Clean Power Authority.

The vote is the latest in a series of 11th-hour decisions by cities on whether to join the county's fledgling public power program. Sonoma became the fifth city to join.

"It gives me great pleasure to vote yes and make this a unanimous vote of the Sonoma City Council," said Mayor Ken Brown, who had previously said he was inclined to vote no.

With Sonoma, the power authority now may serve 79 percent of the utility customers in the county, Sonoma Clean Power interim CEO Geof Syphers said after the vote.

"I think we are finally getting the right information out," Syphers said.

Sonoma council members said the shift away from skepticism of the county program, touted as a greener alternative to PG&E, was due in large part to Santa Rosa's unanimous, yet tentative, vote last week to join the public power agency.

Power agency officials agreed to recommend to their board several conditions Santa Rosa said it needed to participate in the program, including additional ratepayer protections and a method for cities to avoid financial penalties if they later decide to withdraw from the public power agency.

Those changes bolstered the Sonoma council's decision to join the agency.

"I've been in favor of the City of Sonoma joining this for quite some time and I think changes proposed by the city of Santa Rosa should make it a stronger program and hopefully should alleviate concerns," Councilman Stephen Barbose said.

The 4-0 vote featured Laurie Gallian abstaining because her husband works for PG&E.

The council nominated Barbose to sit on the power agency's board.

Sonoma Clean Power aims to supplant PG&E with competitive rates and a cleaner energy portfolio.

The public agency would broker an energy portfolio with greater focus on renewable sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and small hydroelectric projects. PG&E would continue handling billing, transmission, metering, customer service and repairs.

Windsor joined on early as other cities continued to debate the matter. Windsor will be the only city seated when the power authority's board of directors meets July 25 to vote on changes tentatively agreed by Santa Rosa and agency officials. They also will consider approving Syphers' compensation package.

Sonoma, Windsor, Cotati, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol will eventually have seats on the power agency's board, reducing the county's seats.

Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale have decided not to immediately join the program.

During Monday's hearing, council members still raised concerns about how the program would be governed and the weight of smaller cities' votes.

Councilman David Cook again stated his concerns that customers are automatically enrolled and must opt out of the program, as well as his trepidation about government delving into private enterprise.

But Cook said that his confidence in the program grew after the agency gave cities more time to consider the program.

"Government control (of a power agency) is of a concern but it's one I can live with if it gives customers more control," Cook said. "I'm going to go ahead and support this."

Syphers explained to the council that state law requires the opt-out provision as a way of promoting fair competition between large corporations and municipalities.

Customers can opt out without paying a fee for four months, after which time there will be a $5fee for residential customers and $25 for commercial customers.

"If we don't adopt, this we have no choice," Barbose said.

Syphers said that the power agency will hold a public information session July 29 at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall.

Supporters of joining the public power agency touted the promise of greener energy.

Sonoma resident Jessica Jones read a letter from the Sierra Club's Sonoma chapter endorsing the power agency. Jones said the group supports local control of energy sources and that as a resident she wanted to strongly urge the council to give people the opportunity to get their power from a local agency.

Among supporters, several county residents who live just outside city limits urged the city to let their neighbors have the same choice.

"It's time we had a more independent choice than PG&E," Marilyn Goode said.

Opponents included Peter Saibene, 73, of Sonoma, who retired from PG&E 19 years ago. Saibene questioned the fast timeline and said that he still felt there had not been enough time to address questions about what sway small cities like Sonoma will have against Santa Rosa and the county, with more customers and weighted votes.

"We don't have to do it right now, we can wait until we have more answers," Saibene said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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