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Lake Forest officials will decide today on whether their city should join a regional renewable energy agency, along with a host of others in Orange County that either recently took action or will do so this week.  But advocates for such a program are raising concerns about the Lake Forest City Council’s upcoming vote — specifically around the mayor’s employment with a prominent natural gas company that some see as a major force standing against these efforts.  Because of this relationship, they argue, Mayor Neeki Moatazedi should recuse herself. Moatazedi, on the other hand, argues her employer, the Southern California Gas Company, isn’t relevant or affected by the current energy debate and that she’s keeping an open mind. Interest in finding new sources of renewable energy to power the region and combat climate change — through joining what’s been called a “Community Choice Energy” program — has grown across some Orange County cities over the last few months. To learn more about it, click here and here. But Moatazedi is among critics that have since voiced doubt over the idea, saying it could cost more in taxpayer money and add another layer of “bureaucracy.” Community Choice Energy advocates, in response, claim there’s another reason for her skepticism: Moatazedi currently earns a six-figure salary as a project manager for SoCalGas, according to her most recent Form 700 financial disclosures that she’s required to file as a California public official.  To Community Choice advocate and Irvine resident Ayn Craciun, Moatazedi essentially acts as a “lobbyist” for the natural gas provider and should recuse herself from today’s vote.  As part of her role, Moatazedi interacts with power regulators on behalf of the company, according to her city bio page. “I have no conflict of interest as a matter of law … there is no conflict of interest because there is no financial gain,” Moatazedi said in a phone interview Monday. Specifically, she argues that the current discussion across the county’s cities only affects electricity customers. Southern California Edison is Orange County’s predominant provider of it, and member cities under the new power agency could instead purchase largely renewable and climate-friendly energy directly from power suppliers. But the natural gas company Moatazedi works for, her critics point out, is accused of opposing such climate-related energy policies on a larger scale. The California Public Utilities Commission’s public advocate office recently recommended in writing that SoCalGas be fined over $250 million for allegedly using ratepayer funds to undermine statewide efforts combatting climate change. The company, in a written response to those claims, argued it has a “long history of supporting energy efficiency in California” and has invested over $2 billion in energy efficiency since 2000. SoCalGas didn’t respond to requests seeking comment for this story. “It’s really concerning to have someone like that on a city council and voting on a program like this, that has the potential to benefit so many people in ways that we’ll never even fully understand,” Craciun told the Voice of OC. “The threat of the climate crisis is so real and she’s doing it for her personal benefit. It stinks.” Moatazedi reiterates her public concerns that the Community Choice Energy program will add a new level of bureaucracy and cost more taxpayer dollars to run it.

“The only concern I have is that it’s an added level of bureaucracy, and it’s taxpayer money being diverted to employ about 10 to 15 more people on the taxpayer dime,” she said in an interview.

The City of Irvine initiated the countywide push. A feasibility study by the city found that consumers who join in the program are projected to save around 2% on their monthly electricity bill and potentially more as cities pay down the costs of launching the program. At a Dec. 1 Lake Forest City Council meeting, Moatazedi called it a “fairly new concept to cities.”  “Yes, Lancaster has done it, but Lancaster is very small. On a larger scale, I don’t think it’s been really tried and tested very long. The bureaucracy part is a little concerning to me,” Moatazedi told her colleagues and the public at the meeting. Community Choice Energy advocate Jose Trinidad Castaneda disagrees. He said a few Community Choice programs have already been implemented in California and have even earned solid credit ratings.  One such Community Choice program covering Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, and Solano counties got a nod from Moody’s Investor Service — a nationally recognized credit-rating agency — in 2018. Though Moody’s did point out challenges facing that region’s program, such as “uncertainties” over factors like resource production. “The reality is that Community Choice programs have been around for the last decade and have been tried and tested — a proven funding mechanism for cities — and I hope that can be the case for Orange County,” Castaneda said. Moatazedi told Voice of OC on Monday she “loves” the idea on paper.  “I just don’t think that more bureaucracy is always the best answer,” she said. “But I’m still learning about it and educating myself on it.” Tonight, Lake Forest residents will get to see where she ends up on the issue. Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord. Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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