Mar 02 2008
No Rubber Stamp on City Light Superintendent Confirmation
By Bruce Harrell
This spring, Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco is up for reconfirmation. It will focus on key issues defining successful leadership. We need strong, forward-thinking leadership that will provide solutions to the challenges the utility faces; that understands customers and their concerns about rates; and that is able to command the confidence and respect of the work force.
Owned and operated by the City of Seattle, City Light is one of the largest public utilities in the United States, receiving over $830 million in annual revenue. My father began his career with City Light as an apprentice lineman and retired after almost 30 years as the manager of internal audit. His tenure at City Light resulted in my life-long connection with the utility. As chair of the Energy and Technology Committee for the Seattle City Council, I am charged with its legislative oversight. As such, I fully accept my obligation to administer the reconfirmation process in a thorough manner. My background in law and organizational effectiveness will be useful tools; but more importantly, so will the feedback from its employees, customers and my colleagues on the Council.
Reconfirmation decisions should never be a slam dunk. Back in 2003, the Seattle City Council was faced with reconfirming City Light Superintendent Gary Zarker. He was drawing criticism for a 58% rate increase, doubling the debt, and failing to implement a critically important risk management plan. Faced with the reality that the City Council was not going to reconfirm him, Zarker abruptly retired. After a nationwide search, Carrasco accepted the helm.
But Superintendent Carrasco too has drawn criticism on a number of fronts: employee morale, risk management, and failing to promote from within.
On the other hand, rates have decreased by 13 percent over his tenure and the utility has begun work on Council mandated initiatives, specifically asset management, outage management, and strategic planning. It is my job to analyze the achievements as well as the deficiencies; to weigh and balance performance and service.
The absence of a risk management plan was one of the main elements that led to Zarker’s departure. Risk management is a critical tool for minimizing the risks inherent in energy trading. In order to balance power generation against customer demand, City Light buys power and also re-sells surplus power. The wholesale revenue generated from energy trading goes to offset costs, allowing it to keep rates lower. Managing risk in this trading scheme is critical for City Light’s success.
An employee survey of City Light Employees in 2007 suggested a possible disconnect between the workforce and management that could undermine the organization’s success. There are also new workforce challenges on the horizon. City Light will be faced with a large number of long-time employees retiring within the next several years. What is the plan to address this to ensure high performance?
City Light, like all large utilities, is also required by I-937 to carry out “cost-effective energy conservation” and acquire 15% of their electricity from new and renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by the year 2020. I would like to see City Light distinguish itself by fulfilling its mission to develop green alternatives and fully predict the localized impacts at the watershed level arising from global warming.
City Light Last, I see customer service as an over-arching principle that should guide the utility. Although City Light is owned by the public and operated on their behalf, it is a monopoly. The danger of operating like a monopoly can erode customer service and for that reason, it must be ever vigilant in demonstrating that it is meeting its customers’ needs. It is not sufficient to just “keep the lights on”. In a world where people are accustomed to choice in the marketplace, City Light must make the extra effort to add value to the service it provides. I will make this a touchstone of my tenure as Chair of the Committee.
Superintendent Carracso’s reconfirmation must be a thorough process. A process where all the elements are examined and proper constituent and employee outreach is conducted. That is what I intend to do.