Vote delayed on SLO’s electric-building law; councilwoman accused of conflict of interest

UPDATE: Andy Pease issued a statement Tuesday, saying “I don’t believe I have had a conflict of interest on this item.”

Pease added that although building project teams would need to incorporate additional measures “to achieve improved performance for mixed-fuel buildings, professional services for all related trades will be within the typical scope of work on any project regardless of the (city’s) reach code.”

“For example, specifying 4 inches of insulation instead of 2 inches of insulation is the same amount of work for the design professional,” Pease added.

But Pease said she wants to avoid any misconceptions, saying “even a perceived conflict of interest could undermine the community’s trust in a fair and transparent process.”

“As such, I have offered that, if the ordinances move forward, my firm will not participate in any work in the city of San Luis Obispo that is triggered by the reach code,” Pease said. “Based on that approach and other relevant details, I’m working with the city attorney to prepare a request for opinion from the FPPC.”

ORIGINAL STORY: Just as the San Luis Obispo City Council was preparing to approve a new clean energy choice law, the vote has been delayed to consider a conflict-of-interest claim.

A utility labor union alleges that Vice Mayor Andy Pease should have recused herself on Sept. 3 from voting to support a policy that encourages new construction to be all-electric.

That’s because Pease is a licensed architect and a partner in the firm In Balance Green Consulting, focusing on sustainable, energy efficient building, and she stands to gain financially from the vote, the union claims.

On Sept. 3, the council voted 4-1 — with Erica Stewart dissenting — to adopt the proposed law that pushes for all-electric buildings. A second reading of the drafted law Tuesday would have made it official with council support.

“Following the Sept. 3 meeting, the city received a letter from attorneys representing the Utility Workers Union of America expressing concerns of a potential conflict of interest,” SLO officials said Monday. “The city has asked the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to review the complaint. Council action has been postponed to allow time for FPPC’s review.”

The timeline for a decision on conflict-of-interest question is unclear.

Pease didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

“We are working to submit a formal request for advice to the FPPC to ensure that the council’s actions are consistent with the rules,” said City Attorney Christine Dietrick, “... and that we understand any direction or guidance they may be able to provide to the council in moving forward with meeting their 2035 Climate Action goals.”

Conflict-of-interest claim

The union wrote, “Because Ms. Pease is a professional who specializes in clean-energy consulting, and because she is also a highly placed insider in the city’s political and administrative structure, the new clean energy rules will drive a great deal of business to her architectural firm.”

“Ms. Pease’s conflict of interest disqualified her from deliberating or voting on the clean energy resolution and ordinances, or even being present in the council chamber during the discussion and vote on Sept. 3, 2019,” wrote John J. Davis Jr., representing Utility Workers Union of America Local 132.

Mayor Heidi Harmon told The Tribune on Monday that the council remains committed to reaching its 2035 carbon neutrality target by taking bold action to reduce carbon emissions.

Solar panels will help provide electricity needed to power homes in SLO under the city’s new proposed energy policy. SLO’s City Council voted in favor of a new energy policy Sept. 3 encouraging electric power. This one is showcased at Farmer’s Market. Nick Wilson

“We’re committed to advancing our goals and this is one piece of a large suite of solutions to reach our goal by 2035,” Harmon said. “The fossil fuel industry has been fighting against climate action for literally 100 years. ... A vast majority of folks who live here in SLO rank climate action really high (as a community goal). We’re committed to standing with the people and taking a strong leadership position.”

The new SLO law establishes a preference for constructing buildings with all-electric power. It’s not a mandate, however.

Alternatively, developers could still build new structures with gas by retrofitting existing gas-powered buildings to electric elsewhere in the city or by paying in-lieu fees in the thousands of dollars to help fund retrofits.

The program would encourage “modern, highly efficient and highly functional electrical appliances.” Also, solar panels will be required in all new California homes starting in 2020.

Gas industry opposes policy

Eric Hofmann, the utility worker union’s president, said that the group hopes to achieve “justice for our members and justice for the community they serve.”

“A majority of the City Council made an uninformed, errant decision, without proper analysis of potential impacts and what it will mean for hard-working, blue-collar working members,” Hofmann said. “(SLO is) eliminating an energy choice that can help toward climate goals. Natural gas has a seat at the table to help with climate goals. ... We need every energy source.”

But Harmon and policy advocates say that it’s possible for gas industry workers to transition into jobs in renewable energy work.

“I feel strongly that we need to be really thoughtful in how we transition in that working people are an essential part of that conversation,” Harmon said. “I’m very much committed to labor and to continue the conversation around making sure there are good, head-of-household jobs as we move forward.”

Workers for the gas industry and others who support retaining gas appliances in new construction also have rallied to voice opposition, making up the majority of two pages of letters of correspondence in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

“Thank you to Erica Stewart for listening to residents of San Luis Obispo such as myself who can’t afford the City Council’s recently passed ban on our choice to use natural gas and for voting no on the proposal,” wrote Elaine Adams, echoing the words of other opponents who submitted the same form letter.

Adams added that the council “rammed through an extreme and expensive plan that strips away choices while leading to skyrocketing energy bills, which is a hidden tax on housing.”

About 40% of the city’s total carbon emissions currently come from use of natural gas generated from buildings, according to city officials.

“There are tremendous benefits of moving to all zero-pollution buildings, and tonight the council made the clear-sighted and prudent decision to prepare our city for a carbon-free future,” said Eric Veium, chair of the SLO Climate Coalition, at the Sept. 3 meeting.

SLO is also transitioning to purchasing carbon-free, renewable energy sources to supply electricity for the city.

SLO joined the Monterey Bay Community Power community choice energy program, which begins serving city customers in January. That will “reduce energy costs and lower building-related greenhouse gas emissions,” city officials said in a news release.

Stewart said she agrees with the vision for climate action but argued the city should offer more building incentives to help bring down costs to construct new homes. Stewart said affordability for homebuyers and renters needs to be at the forefront of the conversation.

SLO is one of more than 50 California communities considering ways to encourage all-electric, cleaner buildings, according to city officials.

We’ll continue to share the best available information with the public,” said Chris Read, the city’s sustainability manager.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.