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Mayor David Condon vetoes renewable electricity law, calling it unaffordable and unattainable

FILE - Spokane Mayor David Condon, right, and City Council president Ben Stuckart at a news conference in November 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Mayor David Condon vetoed a city law passed last month that calls for Spokane to switch completely to renewable electricity by 2030, citing uncertain costs and potential legal problems.

“These are all laudable goals to have, we just need to understand the financial impact,” Condon said in an interview Friday.

The law Condon vetoed would apply to all electricity users, including private homes, businesses and government. The Spokane City Council approved the measure on a 6-to-1 vote, which means it’s likely the panel will override Condon’s veto.

It’s the second time in two years Condon has opposed a measure that the council passed in an effort to update the city’s sustainability plan, first approved under Mayor Mary Verner in 2009.

Last year, he opted not to sign an ordinance codifying some of the plan’s goals. Condon’s reasoning remained largely the same in vetoing the latest law, which was drafted in consultation with a citizen’s group pushing for more cities to adopt strictly renewable energy portfolios as an answer to global climate change.

In addition to calling for the creation of a plan to get to exclusively renewable electricity, the law calls for the creation of an 11-member panel made up of financial, climate and public health experts who would develop that plan. They would also be able to publish financial analyses and reports on policies as well as make recommendations to the council and mayor, who would have the power to approve or reject those policies.

Condon called the legislation “game-changing” and said he could support a panel that had an advisory role similar to the city’s Plan Commission.

But that’s not what the legislation would create, he said, and the council didn’t provide any figures for how much it might cost to switch to renewable power by 2030 before approving the creation of a committee that would be tasked with finding out how to do that, despite a requirement that legislation land on his desk with a price tag.

Two of the sponsors of the legislation on the panel, City Council President Ben Stuckart and City Councilman Breean Beggs, said the mayor’s justification for the veto included continued attacks on provisions of the law that don’t exist. They maintain the law does not create any additional costs for the city and commented on the timing of the veto, sent in a letter just a day before they and Condon travel to Denmark and Sweden as the hosts of an international conference on green initiatives.

“The irony is not lost on me,” Stuckart said. “We’re going there to get new ideas. I’d sure like a bunch of experts to see which ones we can implement or not implement.”

Condon pointed out that the city already has undertaken several efforts toward sustainable energy without the assistance of a new citizen’s advisory committee, which the law also would establish. Those include a $340 million investment in cleaning up runoff into the Spokane River, shifting the city’s fleet of garbage trucks from diesel to natural gas and adding solar panels to municipal buildings.

Condon said under the ordinance, the new committee would have too much authority over city operations and dismissed arguments that its role would be merely “advisory.”

“I fully support a sustainability advisory committee or commission, that would advise, consult, similar to the Plan Commission,” Condon said.

Beggs said the council made every effort to revise the legislation to meet Condon’s concerns before it was passed Aug. 20, including changing the title of the panel from a “commission” to a “committee” to emphasize its advisory role. He also pointed out that the language changes were enough to persuade Avista, the region’s private utility company, to endorse the legislation during lengthy testimony from supporters three weeks ago.

“I don’t have any explanation, unless there’s some other political agenda going on,” Beggs said about the veto.

Condon said his main concern was about the cost to city ratepayers, the same argument he made in urging the Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its strict standards for discharges of cancer-causing chemicals into the Spokane River. In his veto letter, the mayor said initial analysis points to rate increases “by several hundred dollars each month for the average household.” That would violate the joint promise by the mayor’s office and council to limit utility rate increases to 2.9 percent.

Stuckart acknowledged such a rate increase might be true – if the city were to shift completely off coal tomorrow, not 12 years from now.

“You don’t get anywhere without setting goals,” Stuckart said. Beggs said there was nothing in the ordinance that mandated the city purchase renewable energy credits to meet its 2030 goal.

Condon acknowledged that rates could become less expensive through technological advances.

“More affordable doesn’t mean it’s not going to be substantial,” the mayor said. “Remember, there are things that are going to make it more affordable, but it’s not going to be free. And you still have to build this.”

The mayor also suggested energy costs could increase by as much as $21 million annually, citing Avista’s reported rates for purchasing renewable electricity “blocks” to offset other sources. Stuckart dismissed those costs as “a claim without a warrant.”

The panel will consider an override of the veto at a later meeting. Stuckart said he requested that the measure be taken up during the council’s scheduled meeting Sept. 17.

If council members were to override Condon’s veto, it would be the second time they’ve done so this year and the fourth since the beginning of 2016. In January, council members voted to nix Condon’s veto of a city-run campaign finance system. Condon previously vetoed measures allowing local tax funds to be used for transit projects and mandating sick leave pay, both of which were overridden on 6-to-1 votes.

The law on renewable energy calls for Condon to nominate members to the panel who would then be appointed by the council. Condon would not say Friday if he would follow through on that requirement, saying he hoped the council would listen to his concerns and return with a proposal closer to his suggestions.

“I would hope over the next week, we’ll have these discussions,” Condon said. “I’ll worry about that when it goes into effect.”