First published for the initial launch of the Sonoma Independent April, 2015
Sonoma County has the reputation of being an environmentally conscientious community. Today, April 18th, 2015, on the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, the high percentage of residents who own “EVs” (both hybrids and all-electric vehicles) is a testament to the commitment of Sonoma County’s citizens to practice what they preach. Many have voted –with their dollars—to “walk the talk” of reducing our carbon footprint.
But an investigation into EV purchases for city fleets by the Sonoma Independent reveals a disconnect between the words and actions of most of the city governments in our county. Researching city records for this article was often like pulling teeth: most cities, it seems, have never been asked by local media to disclose how many EVs were in their fleet.
What we learned is that at a time in which nearly every candidate for local city council expresses a commitment to helping reduce carbon emissions, only three cities in Sonoma County—Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Healdsburg– have been adding electric vehicles to their fleets.
Meanwhile, during the past five years, the city governments of Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Sebastopol have purchased dozens of new gas-powered vehicles with our tax dollars—but not bought a single hybrid or electric vehicle. Sonoma and Cloverdale have never purchased an EV for their fleet.
Our county government, on the other hand, has established itself as a national leader in greening its large fleet of vehicles. A recent issue of Government Fleet magazine (yes, there is a trade publication for this topic), reported, “Sonoma County and the Sonoma County Water Agency purchased 27 vehicles through the program. The addition brings the county’s alternative fuel fleet vehicle total to more than 300, encompassing more than 30% of the agencies’ cars, vans, and light-duty trucks and creating one of the largest plug-in hybrid electric vehicle fleets in the country.” Clearly, Sonoma County is walking their talk.
The people of Sonoma County have done their part by purchasing more than 1,500 EVs since a state rebate tracking system began in 2010. Citizens in the Sebastopol zip code topped the county list of EV car purchasers by a long shot, with eight per thousand people. That rate is double the next highest city, which was Petaluma, and four times the EV purchase rate of Santa Rosa and Windsor.
During the past ten years, the private sales of EVs in the United States has doubled, and with a new generation of all electric plug-ins and charging stations, sales are expected to soar in the coming decade.
In 2006, California took the U.S. lead in addressing the global challenge of climate disruption by passing the California Global Warming Solutions Act. In compliance with this landmark bill, most cities in Sonoma County are on record as being committed to promoting EVs as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,. There is widespread expert agreement on the value of transitioning vehicles from gas to electric power. Brant Arthur, a Sonoma county resident and a research consultant for the Center for Climate Protection, explains that “Buying an electric vehicle is a rare win-win situation, especially if it’s for getting around town, where you can save money and help save the environment. It gets even better if you charge your EV using 100% renewable energy, such as EverGreen with Sonoma Clean Power.”
The City of Santa Rosa leads the county in its adoption of EVs. It has one of the largest clean burning alternate fueled city fleets in the State of California, with about 100 EV or compressed natural gas vehicles, representing 10% of its fleet.
Windsor excels among the County’s smaller cities, actively implementing its detailed “Town of Windsor Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Action Plan Update 2012.” The plan calls for fleet changes “to save over 1,300 gallons of fuel annually, resulting in roughly 11.5 metric tons of CO2e avoided.” Windsor will have 12 EVs out of 117 vehicles in their fleet. Six of them will be purchased this year.
Healdsburg, which in 2011 adopted a policy entitled “The Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program,” also continues to order EV’s for its fleet,including an all-electric Chevy Volt. Healdsburg’s fleet of 55 vehicles now contains 5 EV’s.
The “City of Sonoma Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Action Plan” of 2007 also announces noble goals. But like the resolutions passed by a number of other Sonoma County cities, deeds have not followed words. City of Sonoma plan states, “Battery powered electric vehicles pose opportunities for cost savings and enhanced convenience.” Yet eight years later, a review of Sonoma’s 47-vehicle city fleet reveals that they have not yet purchased a single hybrid or EV.
The city of Rohnert Park also has an EV policy in place entitled, “The Rohnert Park 2012 Zero Emission Mobility Program.” It states that, “The City of Rohnert Park has committed to developing an electric vehicle program as part of the City’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Yet a request for city fleet information received this response from the city clerk: “I have confirmed with our Fleet Supervisor that the City currently does not have any electric or hybrid vehicles in the fleet.”
For the county’s second largest city, the Petaluma General Plan 2025, passed in 2008, encourages EVs. But a public records request yielded a vehicle fleet list showing just four hybrids out of a fleet of about 220 vehicles. Not one EV has been purchased during the past six years.
Sebastopol has been the most outspoken city in the county in its support for EVs, which is consistent with the green political leanings of the city’s electorate. Sebastopol was the second city in the United States to vote in a majority Green Party City Council. And its residents purchase EVs at more than double the rate of any other Sonoma County city.
The City of Sebastopol has two separate resolutions in support of EV purchases for its municipal fleet of about 50 vehicles. First came a 2002 “Alternative Fueled Vehicle Resolution” stating that “Cities are significant users of vehicles and equipment, and as public institutions, cities have a responsibility to serve the public interest; Cities can and should lead by example so that residents and businesses will also willingly participate in clean air programs; THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the City of Sebastopol City Council shall identify and give preference in its vehicle procurement to the lowest emission vehicles available.”
That ringing endorsement for city EV purchases was followed by Sebastopol City Council’s 2009, “Resolution Supporting the Zero Emission Dedicated Electric Fleet Vehicles Program.”
Yet for a place that some citizens like to call the “greenest city in America,” Sebastopol has just three hybrids in its city fleet, all of which were purchased more than six years ago. Last summer, Sebastopol spent $66,000 buying two Ford F-250 trucks, with 15-mpg fuel efficiency, for its Public Works Department. To this day, a small municipality less than two miles square, with speed limits of 25 mph, does not have a single electric or hybrid vehicle for its parks.
This disconnect has not gone unnoticed by Sebastopol’s citizens. Kai Daniel Lewis, a 26 year old Sebastopol native, organic farm helper and environmental activist, recently observed: “I frequently see the Sebastopol city workers doing their jobs, and am struck by how big their trucks are in proportion to the size of their tasks. A few months ago I saw them working on the volleyball court near the Brookhaven super playground. Four guys, four shovels, four beefy work trucks. Sebastopol is supposed to be modern. Why are we using so much fuel?”
Jim McGreen is an EV pioneer who founded Zap Zero Air Pollution cars, and now runs Sebastopol-based EV maker Switch Vehicle. McGreen serves on the Board of the Center for Climate Protection. (McGreen also sits on the board of Informing to Empower, the new non-profit that created The Sonoma Independent). “The absence of electric vehicles in our city’s fleet,” McGreen says, “is a glaring oversight. Sebastopol is small enough and smart enough to lead the country in this. Why not really be the first to get to a half EV fleet? Our town is only a mile and a half across.”
The issue of city EV purchases surfaced during last year’s election, when Sebastopol City Council candidate Jonathan Greenberg made the city’s purchase of EVs an issue in his campaign. (Full disclosure: Greenberg is the founding editor of the Sonoma Independent). In a Press Democrat article by Mary Callahan, titled, “Challenger shaking up Sebastopol Council Race,” the newspaper reported, “City officials argue that Greenberg often misrepresents the facts, including several that serve as pillars of his campaign. He’s complained repeatedly, for instance, that a 20-year, $4.6 million vehicle and large equipment replacement schedule the council adopted to help with long-range financial planning does not include plans for the purchase of a single electric vehicle.” Without presenting any research to the contrary, or reporting on the City’s $66,000 purchase two months earlier of two heavy duty trucks, the Press Democrat quoted Greenberg’s critics, including then Mayor Robert Jacob, who said, “Greenberg recklessly attacks our staff and budget, and regularly makes irresponsible and inaccurate statements.”
Shooting the messenger, it would seem, is easier than practicing responsive government. To his credit, Councilmember Jacob did respond by email to the Sonoma Independent’s recent request for comment regarding EVs for the Sebastopol fleet. He said, “The City Budget Subcommittee will be convening in the next few weeks to review the proposed budget of each city department. We will know after those meetings which vehicles are to be replaced and with what.”
Unfortunately, Jacob’s response is indicative of the widespread deference, by elected city representatives entrusted to oversee taxpayer spending, to the policy preferences of city staff. Despite multiple public resolutions by city councils, it is the decisions of unelected city staffers that guides environmentally impactful actions like vehicle purchases.
City councils within Sonoma County are quasi-volunteer positions that cost representatives far more in time and expense than their compensation of about $300 per month. While council members come and go with each election cycle, the city staff is the permanent government. And full time department heads, with few exceptions, seem to insist on procuring gas vehicles, reflecting their personal preferences, often without regard to clearly expressed council resolutions.
This is where citizen involvement and oversight can strengthen the council member’s hands in managing the city staff. A good place to start would be greater transparency and accountability. The posting of a detailed vehicle fleet list on each city’s website—and public announcements of upcoming purchase plans—could make an important difference. After all, it’s our planet—and our tax dollars.