Lou Tavares of Sebastopol talks with Sebastopol council member Sarah Glade Gurney after the Sebastopol City Council voted unanimously Thursday Feb. 21, 2013 to ban the installation of PG&E SmartMeters, effective immediately, with a $500 fine for violations. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

PG&E rejects Sebastopol ban on SmartMeters

Sebastopol and PG&E appear to be on a collision course following the city's adoption Thursday of a ban on the installation of SmartMeters, the controversial wireless devices that critics contend are a threat to public health.

PG&E, which is spending $2.3 billion to install SmartMeters throughout its service area from Eureka to Bakersfield, will not comply, a spokesman said.

The city's measure, citing the "potential risks to the health, safety and welfare of Sebastopol residents," imposed a moratorium, effective immediately, with a $500 fine for violations.

"We cannot agree to a moratorium," PG&E's Paul Moreno said.

As a state-regulated utility, PG&E "operates under the exclusive jurisdiction" of the state Public Utilities Commission, he said.

PG&E will continue to install SmartMeters in the city, Moreno said, noting residential gas and electric customers have the right to opt out of the technology.

PG&E notifies customers by phone and letter before installing SmartMeters and advises them of the right to decline them and pay monthly fees for that option, Moreno said.

Sebastopol has been ground zero for a leading SmartMeter resistance group, the EMF Safety Network, and opponents hailed the City Council's unanimous action at a special meeting called Thursday for that vote.

"I'm glad to see democracy in action. It's heartwarming," said Alan Horn of Sebastopol, who spoke in favor of the ordinance.

City Manager Larry McLaughlin said it would remain in effect until the council takes further action.

"It starts today and it will last indefinitely," McLaughlin told the council and 14 people attending the meeting.

Asked by Councilman John Eder what happens to residents who want SmartMeters removed from their homes, McLaughlin, who is also the city's attorney, said the measure "cannot compel removal of meters already installed."

PG&E has 21,000 gas and electrical meters at homes and businesses in the Sebastopol area and has upgraded 7,100 of them to SmartMeters, Moreno said.

About 1,100 customers have opted out of the change, representing fewer than 10 percent of customers, he said.

PG&E has upgraded about 9.5 million gas and electric meters to SmartMeters throughout its service area and expects to complete the program with nearly 500,000 upgrades this year. Systemwide, the opt-out rate is less than 1 percent, Moreno said.

The PUC is considering the idea of allowing communities to opt out of SmartMeters, a step Sebastopol has endorsed.

Councilman Patrick Slayter voiced the council's only reservation on the meter installation ban, saying some people are neutral on the issue and others want a SmartMeter.

"That freedom of choice also needs to be protected," he said.

"I would be fine having one installed," resident John Henel told the council. "I don't need you to protect me from meters."

"We weren't afraid of second-hand smoke either," resident Dave Hubert said, referring to the time before smoke's effect on non-smokers was documented. "This is being done as a precautionary approach."

The ordinance says "significant health questions have been raised" over the electromagnetic frequency radiation emitted by the wireless meters, which eliminate the need for meter readers.

McLaughlin said the ordinance does not distinguish between people who do or do not want SmartMeters.

Slayter also expressed concern that the $500 fine could be assessed against a PG&E employee or contract worker who is "just doing his job."

The council took no action on his proposal to set the fine no higher than $1.

Moreno declined to speculate on what might happen if someone was cited for violating the moratorium.

Other cities have imposed moratoriums, he said, and PG&E has continued to install SmartMeters in those areas.

McLaughlin said earlier that about 50 cities have adopted measures like Sebastopol's. He declined to discuss their legality.

"I'm not sure this is a legal ordinance, an enforceable ordinance," Slayter said Thursday.

PG&E began installing SmartMeters three years ago, promoting the wireless meters as a way for consumers to better manage their energy and save money.

Mayor Michael Kyes challenged that concept, saying it depended largely on people turning off air conditioners during peak summer power-use periods, and that few people in Sebastopol have air conditioners.

"The savings that are expected are not going to materialize."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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