Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s pick for CEO and general manager of Seattle City Light has given City Council members a shock with some blunt remarks about his former employer. Larry Weis just left a similar job in Austin, Texas.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s pick to take charge of City Light has given City Council members a shock with some blunt remarks about his former employer.
During his final weeks heading Austin, Texas’ public-electric utility, Larry Weis said Austin Energy should be run primarily by an independent board rather than by the Austin City Council. And he described newly elected Austin council members as naive.
Weis’ remarks in the Austin American-Statesman last week could complicate his relationship with Seattle council members, who have yet to confirm his nomination as City Light CEO and general manager.
Council President Bruce Harrell this week called Weis’ comments troubling, as did Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who chairs the Seattle council’s energy committee, and Councilmember Lorena González, who sits on the committee.
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The council members each said they want to hear Weis explain himself before handing him a $340,000-per-year job.
“I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Harrell said. “But if he’s going to succeed in this job, he should embrace the fact that he’ll be getting a lot of policy advice from nonexperts. If he doesn’t, that’s going to be somewhat problematic.”
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Weis said his comments about Austin Energy and the Austin City Council shouldn’t worry Seattle officials.
“Austin is not Seattle,” said Weis, a Washington state native who is scheduled to arrive in Seattle Thursday. “There are entirely different politics and dynamics down there.”
Though Austin Energy and City Light are about the same size, Austin and Seattle are governed differently, he said.
Austin elects council members, one of whom becomes mayor, and the council appoints a city manager. Seattle elects council members and a mayor separately.
In Austin, the city manager is responsible for supervising the electric utility. In Seattle, the council sets City Light’s rates and policy, but the mayor hires and fires the utility’s CEO.
“While there are some similarities, there are also some very significant differences,” Weis said, arguing Austin’s system presents more opportunities for council members to insert themselves into day-to-day utility operations.
Seattle’s “strong mayor” system was “one of the things that appealed to me when I applied for this job,” he said.
“In Seattle, I’ll report to the mayor and the council on policy and the budget. I’m happy with the structure in Seattle.”
Weis’ former boss was less than happy with him dishing to the American-Statesman. Austin City Manager Marc Ott wrote a memo last week apologizing for Weis’ remarks.
The change Weis supports in Austin would have the council retain final authority to approve rates, he told the American-Statesman.
Sawant said she would oppose any move to transfer authority from the Seattle City Council to a separate board. She says direct council oversight of City Light is essential.
“City Light was set up as a public utility precisely so working people can have a say, through their elected leaders, in how things are run,” she said.
Weis said he gave the American-Statesman his opinion about Austin’s structure because a possible change has been under discussion for many years.
“This was something previous mayors and councils wanted to do. I was asked whether I support it. My answer was, ‘I do, for Austin.’ But (for Seattle), it’s irrelevant.”
The discussion isn’t unique to Austin, however. In 2002, after the California energy crisis, some local experts called for an independent board to replace the Seattle council in overseeing City Light. The debate flared up in 2006 and 2011.
Proponents of change in Seattle say many elected officials lack expertise in running complex utilities. But Harrell said Weis must be willing to deal with that.
“We don’t have many people (on the council) with significant utility experience,” Harrell said. “But I think he needs to understand that the insight of elected officials has a lot of value.”
Harrell added, “It’s a big deal because this position, the highest-paid employee for the city, is always scrutinized more than other positions. He has to be politically astute in how he deals with the press, the mayor and the council. That’s part of the job.”
Austin and Seattle each recently began electing council members by geographic districts. Four of Seattle’s nine council members were newly elected in November.
The American-Statesman quoted Weis calling Austin’s new council members, who took office a year ago, “very naive.”
“They are vulnerable to other people’s views and to making statements and things they really haven’t thought through very much,” he told the newspaper.
Weis said his use of the word “naive” was taken out of context. He said he used it while talking about a specific issue, not about Austin Energy more generally.
“That comment was around renewable-energy contracts, which were being put before this new council at a time when they didn’t have enough education, so they were being influenced not by the utility as much as by other stakeholders,” Weis said.
In November, Murray said he expected Weis to start work on Feb. 1. But the Seattle council likely won’t begin reviewing Weis until next month.
The mayor can hire an appointee on contract before he or she is confirmed; Murray did that with new Parks Department superintendent Jesús Aguirre last year.
“Larry was a strong candidate and was highly recommended (by an interview panel),” Murray spokesman Jason Kelly said. “The mayor looks forward to Larry introducing himself to the City Council as it begins the confirmation process.”
González said her goal is to confirm “the best qualified candidate who also respects our governance model.”
Sawant said she wants to determine whether Weis is a bureaucrat or an innovator prepared to make City Light a “next-generation utility” capable of providing broadband Internet.
She questioned Murray’s plan to pay Weis $340,000 and said she intends to ask him whether he’d do the job for less. Weis’ earned more than $315,000 in Austin. City Light’s last CEO, Jorge Carrasco, made nearly $245,000.
The average salary for heads of large U.S. public utilities was $403,262 in 2014, according to a survey by the American Public Power Association.
“I’m really looking forward to engagement (with Seattle council members) and fielding any questions they may have that are relevant,” Weis said.
Carrasco retired last May. The year before, missteps cost him a planned $119,000 raise. Murray canceled the pay hike after The Times revealed City Light had hired a firm to polish Google search results about Carrasco’s tenure.
Carrasco’s predecessor, Gary Zarker, stepped down in 2003 after the council said it wanted him out. City Light CEOs face re-confirmation every four years.
Jim Baggs has been serving as the utility’s interim CEO.
Weis is slated to meet next week with environmental and labor advocates and people involved with Seattle’s Utility Discount Program, Kelly said.