Lake Forest officials have backed out of Orange County’s newly formed Power Authority and community choice energy program touted to lower costs for residents through investments in renewable energy.
For almost two hours on Tuesday night, officials heard residents and supporters urge them to “keep the Orange County Power Authority family together” and allow residents to choose their own energy at the meeting.
The City Council with a roll count vote of 4-1 decided on Tuesday to leave the authority despite residents’ calls to stay in the agency.
At the end of the meeting Mayor Scott Voigts, the sole dissenting voice, apologized to residents for his colleagues’ decision after engaging in a heated and contentious debate with Councilmembers Mark Tettemer and Neeki Moatazedi over killing their involvement in the program.
“We have a few council members that have a mentality of distrust for other council members from other cities and I think that that’s a toxic way to think,” Voigts said at the meeting
“That’s not true,” Moatazedi responded.
Some residents said the program could provide an alternative to Southern California Edison — the predominant provider of the county’s electricity — which they described as a “monopoly”. Proponents also argue the program will lower the rate of wildfires which just months ago forced people to evacuate their homes and help address the impacts of climate change.
“The climate crisis is already affecting us right here in Lake Forest with increasing damage in wildfires just this past year,” a resident and UC Irvine student said in her public comment. “The residents have nothing to lose from Lake Forest remaining in the (program) as it only provides each resident the choice to use a renewable energy provider.”
“You have the power to actually do something about climate change so please use it,” the student added.
Orange County cities have been debating for months on a community choice program that bands municipalities together to buy energy and sell it to residents with Irvine leading the charge and footing the initial costs of the Power Authority.
City survey results show 85% of the over 600 registered voters surveyed would likely buy electricity from the city if they were charged less for it and 72% said they would likely purchase their electricity from Lake Forest if a greater amount of it would be produced from renewable sources.
After seeing the survey results and hearing dozens from the public speak in favor of the Orange County Power Authority, Councilman Mark Tettemer said they “don’t know exactly what the community wants as the hierarchy for this pursuit.”
Voigts suggested to host a town hall in the next couple weeks to inform residents about the energy program.
“I won’t support that because I don’t want to give anybody the impression that somehow we’re just trying to rush this thing through,” Tettemer said. “It’s not just how many people can get on a zoom call.”
Voigts accused Tettemer of “sandbagging” public input. Tettemer said that he wants “full throated” public discussion.
Councilwoman Neeki Moatazedi made the motion to leave the agency before the March 17 deadline and on Tettemer’s suggestion create an ad-hoc committee to work with staff on outreach over community choice energy.
“The way it is designed doesn’t give us a benefit as a founding member at all,” she said about the governing structure of the agency. “It doesn’t hurt us to withdraw now and join at a later time.”
Before the city joined the Orange County Power Authority, residents raised concerns about Moatazedi’s employment with the Southern California Gas Co. and said she should recuse herself from the vote.
At the Feb. 16 meeting, some residents raised those very same concerns.
“The council member literally works for SoCal gas. How is that not a conflict of interest?,”one public commenter said. “SoCal gas has a long track record in skirting environmental regulations.”
However the City Attorney Matthew Richardson said the city is comfortable with Moatazedi to have a say on the decision.
“There is not a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect as a result of this employment,” Richardson said.
Read coverage of that issue here.
Cities like Huntington Beach and Fullerton are part of Orange County Power Authority (OCPA) that formed at the end of last year which runs the community choice energy program. Mayor Voigts represented Lake Forest on the board of the agency.
A feasibility study conducted by consultants hired by the city to study the program found that the Community Choice programs have slightly lower average rates than Southern California Edison (SCE).
Tettemer said he is not opposed to a community choice energy program and added if “all roads lead back to” the county’s power authority he’d happily rejoin them.
“I believe that the next step that would be important is that we explore our options and there are several. It is not just SCE or OCPA,” Tettemer said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.