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Sonoma Clean Power board maps out agency's future

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With five newly seated city representatives, an expanded board of directors for Sonoma County's startup public power agency got to work Thursday, reviewing a preliminary first-year budget and a timeline geared toward a power purchase deal, plus various staffing and financial decisions looming over the next four months.

The now eight-person Sonoma Clean Power board began the day with a roll call featuring new faces, including Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, Sebastopol Mayor Michael Kyes, Sonoma Councilman Steve Barbose, and two representatives from Santa Rosa — Councilman Jake Ours and Councilwoman Robin Swinth.

They joined the county's two ongoing representatives, Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, and Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie, who was seated in June.

The board's first order of business was to pick a chairperson. After Zane's quick nomination of Landman — a gesture, she said, to the cities — which deadlocked on a 4-4 vote, Barbose nominated Gorin, whose district takes in the city of Sonoma. She was elected unanimously. Landman then was elected vice chairman.

"This is not just a chair effort," Gorin said. "It's a team effort. It's all eight of us just moving this grand adventure forward."

Geof Syphers, the agency's interim chief executive, spent much of the two-hour meeting giving an update on the next four months of operations, including work to negotiate a power supply contract with four final bidders.

The core terms of that agreement, spelling out nearly everything but final price, could be released to the public in September, Syphers said. A deal could be executed after that, possibly in October, depending on the turnaround time for state utilities regulators in approving the agency's implementation plan.

The venture, billed as a greener, competitively priced alternative to PG&E, aims to begin supplying electricity to at least 10,000 customers, and possibly up to 20,000, by the start of next year. The rollout will be aimed mostly at commercial customers, Syphers said.

But an ongoing clash between its main ideals — to shrink the county's carbon footprint through greater reliance on locally generated, renewable power — and calls for lowering customer rates could complicate its rollout.

The conflict, evident throughout the initiative's public development this year, surfaced again Thursday. Sonoma Clean Power advocates urged the board to stick to program goals, calling for at least 33 percent of power from renewable sources, with profit going to build local generation projects.

"If rates are competitive and we have a 33 percent renewables minimum, then we should invest the difference between income and expenses in localizing energy resources and not in further lowering rates," said Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign.

Ratepayer advocates, however, called for at least some portion of profits to regularly be put back into rate stabilization.

"The idea here is to have Sonoma Clean Power do something for the average ratepayer," said Bob Williamson, a Mark West-area resident active on government fiscal issues. "Now rates are set to just be competitive to PG&E and the profits, because people are paying more than necessary, are going to fund the people who are pushing this project."

Syphers conceded the tug-of-war existed, calling it "twin issues" that pull the ultimate price customers pay in different directions.

"Navigating that has been something that is really important," he said.

The board named four members — Zane, Swinth, Kyes and Okrepkie — to a side committee that will provide ongoing feedback to Syphers and others handling the power contract negotiations.

Deputy County Counsel Steve Shupe said the committee appeared to comply with open meeting laws because its four members did not constitute a numerical majority on the main board.

The directors approved a conflict-of-interest code covering the board and appointees on two advisory panels for business operations and ratepayer protection.

The board also agreed to regularly meet at 8:45 a.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month in the Board of Supervisors chambers.

Up for approval at the Aug. 15 meeting are the first-year budget, the agency's implementation plan, a staffing plan and bylaws for the board.

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

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