Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s nominee to head City Light got a grilling from City Council members Thursday.
The barbecue may have been better in his last city, but Larry Weis got a Pacific Northwest-style grilling Thursday at a Seattle City Council energy-committee meeting.
The former general manager of Austin, Texas’ public electric utility, who stepped down last month after being nominated by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray last year to head Seattle City Light, answered questions from council members for more than an hour.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who chairs the committee, and council members Lorena González and Debora Juarez, asked Weis whether he would build a more diverse City Light workforce, address climate change, serve low-income neighborhoods, raise rates on large businesses and pursue municipal broadband.
Sawant also pressed Weis and Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas about the $340,000 annual salary Murray has proposed for the utility executive, arguing the sum is too high.
“You (would be) making almost 10 times as much as the lowest-paid city workers,” she said, noting the proposed salary would amount to $28,000 per month for Weis.
The competition for executives in an industry dominated by private utilities is intense, Joncas replied, saying $340,000 per year is less than the average public-utility executive makes and much less than some private-utility executives make.
“The mayor really strongly believes in public service,” she said. “For equity and morale reasons, we believe public employees deserve to be paid fairly and well.”
The energy committee will meet again and hold a public hearing before voting on whether to confirm Weis, Sawant said.
Weis offered no new and specific plan for making City Light’s workforce more diverse, but he told the council members his executive leadership team at Austin Energy was among the most diverse in the country among public electric utilities.
The Seattle-born, Douglas County-raised nominee said he was bullish on renewable energy in Texas’ most liberal city, making some enemies there for being so green.
Weis may have scored points when he recalled Austin Energy’s removing a power plant from a poor minority neighborhood under his watch. But he locked horns with Sawant when she asked him why he didn’t go further in Austin with solar power.
Markets in Austin and Seattle are different, Weis noted, saying he sought to balance what environmental advocates wanted and what cost-conscious ratepayers wanted.
Sawant was stymied in 2014 when she proposed lowering electricity rates for residential customers at the expense of business customers. When asked about her plan, Weis said he would need to learn more about City Light’s existing rate structure.
Murray’s nominee began his career at Snohomish PUD and said his relationships with labor unions have been good. He said Seattle is a better fit for him, culturally.
Sawant and González expressed concern last month after Weis criticized members of the Austin City Council in an exit interview with the Austin American-Statesman.
“I started from the very bottom,” he said Thursday after telling the committee that a move to City Light means, “I’m coming home.”
Sawant has pushed for Seattle to launch its own broadband Internet network, potentially through City Light, while Murray has been more cautious. Weis said he likes the idea of municipal broadband but wants to learn more about the situation in Seattle.