Mayor Jenny Durkan nominated Debra Smith in August, describing her as "the right person at the right time to take the helm" of an electric utility dogged in recent years by employee and customer problems.
The Seattle City Council voted unanimously Monday to confirm Debra Smith as the new head of Seattle City Light, which has been dogged lately by workplace and customer-service problems.
Mayor Jenny Durkan nominated Smith in August to take over as chief executive officer and general manager at the electric utility, describing her as “the right person at the right time to take the helm.”
Smith has served since 2013 as CEO and general manager of the Central Lincoln People’s Utility District, which provides electricity on Oregon’s central coast. She previously spent more than 17 years in various roles at the Eugene Water and Electric Board, also a public utility in Oregon.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” Smith said after the vote, praising City Light as “a great utility” despite recent challenges.
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The nominee will step into an organization that’s come under increasing scrutiny because of escalating rates, cost overruns on projects and abnormally large bills.
There was yet another revelation Monday, with City Light disclosing that it let $21 million in unpaid bills slide for many months, initially because it didn’t trust its new billing system and later because it was behind on verifying bills. Finally last month, the utility again began pursuing nearly 20,000 overdue accounts, Crosscut reported.
Smith will have a “huge opportunity,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, to both “keep the lights on and shed light on changes needed” at the utility.
City Light is much larger than either Oregon utility where Smith has worked. But members of a Seattle search committee said they were impressed with the nominee’s experience in the Pacific Northwest and with her leadership. Smith has promised to treat the utility’s employees and customers with kindness and to “let them know that they matter.”
“She is remarkably bold and direct,” Ash Awad, an executive at McKinstry and a search-committee member, told council members at a September meeting.
The mayor has proposed that Smith earn $340,000 per year, which will make her Seattle’s highest-paid employee. Her predecessor, Larry Weis, had the same salary. He resigned this past year, after Durkan took office.
Mosqueda’s energy committee questioned Smith twice this past month and then voted 3-0 to advance her nomination.
Environmentalists initially expressed concern after learning about Smith sitting on the board of Northwest River Partners, an alliance of Columbia and Snake river users. The group recently supported a U.S. House proposal that would have restricted changes at hydroelectric dams, such as more water spilling meant to help salmon migrate.
Smith told Mosqueda’s committee she joined to provide the group with a new perspective. The nominee said she believes the government should consider all options for the dams, including their removal.
“I assure you I have a strong environmental ethic,” Smith said in September, pledging to collaborate with Seattle activists on the issue.
On Monday, several salmon-habitat advocates said Smith had won them over by meeting with and listening to them.
Durkan chose Smith partly to address allegations by City Light employees about workplace discrimination and harassment. The unions that represent the utility’s workers and the Seattle Silence Breakers, a group of city employees and activists, have cautiously welcomed Smith’s appointment.
A retired City Light worker asked the council this past month to grill the nominee about an apprentice line worker being sexually assaulted in Eugene during Smith’s time there. Smith helped negotiate a settlement for the woman, she said in response, vowing to tolerate no such behavior at City Light.
Amy Bowles, with PTE Local 17, which represents City Light office employees, said her members are excited for Smith to improve the utility’s workplace culture.
The nominee said her No. 1 priority will be to improve customer satisfaction with a utility that has incurred anger by sticking households with shockingly large bills. Mosqueda has ordered an audit.
Mosqueda also has ordered a study on how City Light might alter its rate structure to help regular households. Smith called that appropriate.
City Light is installing new, advanced meters at homes and businesses across the city that broadcast readings automatically to the utility.
Smith said she expects that project eventually to cut down on the utility’s billing problems. Under Durkan, City Light has eliminated an enormous billing backlog.
On Monday, spokesman Scott Thomsen said the utility is on solid ground. This past month, City Light again began sending out notices telling customers with unpaid bills to settle up.
The utility had stopped disconnecting customers for unpaid bills in March 2017 and had stopped sending late notices in January 2018.
There are 17,610 residential accounts with balances at least 90 days late, totaling more than $16 million, Thomsen said. There are 1,562 commercial accounts in that situation, totaling more than $5 million.