An Oakdale City Council member’s employment with a local alternative energy firm has raised conflict-of-interest concerns for participating in agenda item discussions as the city explores the possibility of an alternative energy project of its own using solar panels in an attempt to offset city energy costs.
At an early September meeting, Oakdale City Council members talked over the possibility of the project that could save the city an estimated $850,000 to $1.9 million in electricity costs over a 20-year period. As it was proposed, the project would be contracted with a company for no-cost installations in exchange for an array of clean air and renewable energy credits the contractor would be able to claim.
City officials agreed to allot $25,000 in consulting costs to Siemens Inc., a worldwide energy corporation, for a feasibility study of the project. As part of that agreement, the city would not have to pay the cost of the study if it moves forward with Siemens as the company for project to install rows upon rows of panels at the wastewater facility.
During discussions at that time, Councilwoman Kathy Morgan raised concerns about Siemens and informed the members and audience that her conversations with representatives of the Modesto Irrigation District indicated that MID didn’t approve this type of project if it wasn’t owned by the customer.
Not disclosed at the time was that Morgan, a two-term council member, is employed as a commercial projects specialist by 1st Light Energy in Modesto, a competing renewable energy firm that focusses on solar panel installation.
“I don’t know if there is (a conflict of interest), but there is a perception that it is,” said Mayor Pat Paul. “I was surprised. Kathy is always very good about those things and should have known.”
The Oakdale Handbook for Rules and Procedures for the Oakdale City Council states councilmembers shall disqualify themselves and abstain from voting if they have a financial conflict of interest. In such event, they may not participate in the discussion or the vote. It directs the councilmember to leave the dais until the conclusion of the agenda item.
“I would have excused myself,” said Councilman Tom Dunlop who works as an Operations Manager for Eleanor Ranch, a custom Holstein Heifer feed lot. “With me, if there’s anything close, I always excuse myself.”
Dunlop said he did not want to discuss the matter further due to currently running against Morgan for a council seat.
Morgan believes there was no conflict of interest in the matter. Morgan said that 1st Light Energy typically installs solar panels for only commercial and residential customers.
“The whole thing is a moot point anyway because MID is not going to allow it (wastewater solar project),” said Morgan when contacted about the concern. “1st Light Energy wouldn’t consider it anyway because of how MID works. They are strictly an installer and don’t do power purchase agreements.”
Morgan said she wanted to provide information so the city didn’t lose money when MID didn’t approve the project and after the city had spent money for a study.
“Greg (Wellman) may not have known how it worked,” said Morgan. “It was just by coincidence and I had a little bit of knowledge. I knew people at MID and Siemens wasn’t prepared.”
Greg Wellman is the former interim city manager and city-paid consultant for the solar panel project.
At the September meeting, Wellman showed concern that council members were contacting MID officials without city staff knowledge and felt those calls could be jeopardizing to the negotiations with MID. After the discussions, the city and Siemens agreed that the study would not be “complete” unless MID signed off on the project.
When contacted by email, Wellman defended Morgan stating that she has had a long-standing interest in solar energy.
“I have been honored to have worked with her over the past 15 months under some very demanding circumstances,” Wellman wrote. “She is of good character in my view.”
Earlier this year, the Stanislaus County Grand Jury reprimanded members of the Oakdale City Council for conflict-of-interest violations stemming from some council members abstaining from a vote but still remaining for the discussion of an agenda item. The Grand Jury cited California Government Code violations instructing that they were to have left the room during all discussion on the issue.
“I didn’t do anything intentional,” said Morgan. “I try to be on the up-and-up.”