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For now, Sebastopol backs off SmartMeter ban

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.

Sebastopol has temporarily stopped enforcing its recently-enacted moratorium on the installation of SmartMeters, citing shaky legal ground and the risk of being sued.

The development comes amid growing tensions over the city's ordinance, including an incident last week in which police responded after a Sebastopol resident called 911 to report that a PG&E worker was installing a SmartMeter in violation of the moratorium, an act that carries a $500 penalty.

The worker left without being cited, said Larry McLaughlin, Sebastopol's city manager and attorney.

PG&E responded by stopping all utility work in Sebastopol.

McLaughlin on Wednesday said he ordered the temporary halt to enforcement of the moratorium after the California Public Utilities Commission on Friday sent him a letter calling the ban “unlawful and unenforceable.”

The City Council hastily scheduled a closed session meeting Tuesday night to discuss the legality of the ordinance and whether it exposes the city to potential civil liabilities, McLaughlin said.

He said no actions were taken Tuesday and that the council is scheduled to revisit the issue at another closed session meeting set for 8:30 a.m. March 14 at City Hall.

SmartMeter opponents expressed dismay Wednesday at the city backing away from the moratorium. The city is ground zero for resistance to the devices, which critics fear can cause ailments ranging from cancer to headaches from exposure to the electromagnetic frequencies that the devices emit.

“Sebastopol needs to continue to stand up to CPUC and PG&E. The CPUC's mission is to ensure safe and reliable utility service, and they have not proven that SmartMeters are safe,” said Sandi Maurer of Sebastopol, founder of the activist group EMF Safety Network.

McLaughlin and Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver met with senior PG&E officials Wednesday to discuss the SmartMeter controversy.

According to McLaughlin, the PG&E officials present included Sanford Hartman, a company vice president and managing director of law, and Cliff Gleicher, senior director of the SmartMeter program.

PG&E requested the meeting, according to McLaughlin, who declined to state specifically what the group discussed.

The meeting was the culmination of tensions sparked Feb. 21 by the City Council enacting the moratorium, effective immediately.

McLaughlin said a PG&E representative informed the city a day or two after the council acted that the company was going to challenge the moratorium in court.

Then earlier this week, McLaughlin said, PG&E said it was ceasing all operations in the city, including the marking of underground gas lines and work on the $23.5 million Barlow project, the city's largest development project in years.

McLaughlin said at Wednesday's meeting he requested PG&E resume “normal activities” in Sebastopol. However, he said the city is still asking that the company not install SmartMeters until the CPUC resolves whether communities, and not just individuals, can opt-out of getting the devices.

PG&E has 22,800 gas and electrical meters at homes and businesses in the Sebastopol area and has upgraded 7,500 of them to SmartMeters.

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

In a separate meeting with The Press Democrat's editorial board Wednesday, Helen Burt, a senior vice president with PG&E and the company's chief customer officer, said the utility has decided to halt installation of SmartMeters in Sebastopol until further notice.

She said she met with more than 100 PG&E employees in Santa Rosa Wednesday to discuss their concerns about being cited by the police or confronted by angry residents while working in Sebastopol.

She said the fact the police were called last week “didn't sit well with our employees, who as you can imagine were doing their job.”

She said the employee who was visited by police last week was “doing routine maintenance work” on a “meter set” that may have not been related to SmartMeters.

McLaughlin said Weaver, however, informed PG&E officials Wednesday in their meeting at City Hall that the employee involved in last week's incident had installed three SmartMeters that day and was working on his fourth when police were contacted.

Whatever the case, Burt said her concern is that Sebastopol residents will start calling the police on PG&E workers, some who call the city their home, for all kinds of things not related to SmartMeters.

She said she told employees she met with on Wednesday to be “situationally-aware” while they are working in the city.

“We may be calling law enforcement ourselves,” she said.

Burt said about 50 California communities have sought moratoriums on the SmartMeters, but she said only Sebastopol went the step of enforcing violations.

But she and other company officials on Wednesday struck a conciliatory tone. “We don't want to be at war with our communities,” Burt said.

McLaughlin said Sebastopol “possibly” has taken a “more aggressive” stance toward SmartMeters. But he said that's not a reason for PG&E to discontinue work unrelated to installation of the devices in the city.

“We can't prevent citizens from getting upset, but the police will come on scene if that's the case and we'll sort it out,” he said.

He also made the case that the city's moratorium should not be construed as a “forever thing” because it's tied to the CPUC's discussions about communities being able to opt-out of SmartMeters. But presumably Sebastopol leaders would consider a permanent ban should state power authorities give them that option.

Burt said PG&E is considering beefing up outreach in Sebastopol to inform residents of what the company is doing in the city and to provide information about the options residents have with regard to SmartMeters.

PG&E customers can opt-out of the program by calling 1-866-743-0263. They must pay a $75 setup charge as well as a $10 monthly fee, or $5 for those who meet certain income criteria.

A company spokeswoman later in the day Wednesday said that PG&E will continue gas line work in Sebastopol. Still undecided is to what degree the company will be operating in the city, however.

“It's worth taking a step back and having these conversations before we determine next steps,” said Brittany McKannay with PG&E.

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