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Lack of Latinos on Sonoma Clean power panels raises concerns

Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.

The board of directors of Sonoma Clean Power filled 13 spots on two key public advisory panels Wednesday without a single Latino face, causing some board members to question the outreach effort to recruit volunteers.

“Given that this is 40 percent of our population — soon to be 50 percent — this is a huge oversight ... We blew it, quite frankly,” said Director Shirlee Zane, one of two members from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

CEO Geof Syphers defended his recruitment effort, saying he had placed advertisements and public service announcements with major local newspapers and radio stations and posted the unpaid positions on the Internet, but he admitted he had not approached the newspaper La Voz or radio station KBBF-FM, both bilingual news outlets popular with local Hispanics.

“I share your concern and would have liked to have had some more applicants from that community,” he told Zane, “and I would like to do better next time.”

Sonoma Clean Power hopes to begin offering electricity to its first customers, mostly businesses in Sonoma County and several of its cities — Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Cotati, Windsor and Sebastopol — in May. The bulk of residential customers will join in stages by 2016. The agency will compete directly with PG&E and customers are free to chose to remain with the older utility.

Zane said the lack of Latino representation on Clean Power committees could hurt the participation rate if PG&E does aggressive marketing in Spanish.

The eight board members appeared to agree with Zane's dismay at the lack of diversity on the panels, one of which is designed to advise on rates and the other on business policies at the fledgling county power agency, but they disagreed on how to remedy the problem.

Several, including Chairwoman Susan Gorin, the other representative from the Board of Supervisors, suggested appointing a non-voting liaison from the Latino community, with an eye toward appointing that person to a voting position when one comes open.

Others, however, dismissed that idea.

“You're going to say 'you can come to the meetings, but you can't vote?' I think that's an insult,” said Director Jake Ours, a Santa Rosa City Council member.

Zane suggested amending the agreement among the city and county governments to add an additional member to the rate-setting advisory committee, but that prospect appeared to alarm Syphers and several other board members. The agency is under a tight administrative and legal schedule to get power flowing by May 1 and the process of amending the delicately-negotiated agreement, even for a relatively minor change, could take many weeks and derail the timetable, warned Director Steve Barbose, a Sonoma City Council member.

In the end, the board unanimously approved the advisory panel appointments recommended by a subcommittee of directors, with only the promise from Syphers to recruit Latino members in the future.

The new “Business Operations Committee” will review the contracts and internal processes of the agency. It includes four energy sector consultants — chairwoman Susan Briski and members Harry Davitian, Bill Mattinson, and Paul Brophy — and retired Healdsburg City Attorney Mike Gogna.

The authority's general counsel, Steve Shupe, said that because members are so tightly tied to the energy industry they would have to be carefully advised on possible conflicts of interest. Should any of their firms attempt to contract with the agency, he said, the members would have to resign from the panel under a state law that forbids public officials from participating on both the public and private sides of a contract, even indirectly. In lesser matters where the economic interests of a member's business might be at stake, the member could simply sit out the discussion and not vote, he said.

The second panel is less likely to present conflict problems, Shupe said, since it advises on rates that would apply broadly to all businesses and residents.

That panel will be chaired by Dick Dowd, a member of the Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities. He told the directors that Santa Rosa's attorneys had advised him that the dual position should not pose a conflict, but should one arise, he would bow out of one of the two panels.

Representing commercial customers will be Tim Holmes and John Parry, both energy sector consultants. Representing residents will be Susan Amato, Bob Williamson, Margaret Spaulding and June Brashares.

In other actions Wednesday, the directors approved a benefits package for prospective Clean Power employees, including an allowance of up to $1,250 per month for health care coverage. That is substantially less than the $1,720 that Syphers had predicted to the board last month, but he said the bidders for the health care contracts are now predicting lower premiums than previously discussed.

Employees will be offered retirement in the form of a “457 plan,” which is similar to the familiar 401(k) retirement savings account. Syphers said the 457 plan is easier and cheaper for the agency to administer than either a 401(k) or a combination of the two plans.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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