Smith has been with Central Lincoln People’s Utility District in Newport since 2013. She would be Seattle City Light's second-ever female leader, taking over at a time when the utility has been dogged by issues ranging from leader missteps to discrimination claims to customer-service troubles.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Debra Smith as her nominee Tuesday for the next CEO and general manager of Seattle City Light, describing Smith as the right leader to improve City Light’s workplace culture, customer service and long-term planning despite coming from a much smaller utility.
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.
The nominee has long hoped to join City Light, she said.
“This is the big-time right here,” Smith said during a news conference, standing beside one of the utility’s signature yellow service trucks.
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The mayor’s choice is subject to City Council confirmation. Smith would be only the second woman to head City Light in 108 years. Her council confirmation process will begin Sept. 13 and she could begin as soon as Oct. 15.
Durkan said she wanted someone with both industry experience and the ability to help City Light change. Seattle’s electric utility has been dogged in recent years by issues ranging from leader missteps and sexual-harassment and discrimination claims by employees to cost overruns and exasperating billing problems.
At the same time, the organization has raised rates, asking customers to offset shifts in the energy market and declining electricity use by customers.
“Debra is the right person at the right time to take the helm,” the mayor said.
City Light has been without a permanent leader since December, when Larry Weis moved on. Durkan had just taken office and said she and Weis had come to a “mutual decision” that he would leave.
Jim Baggs, a longtime City Light executive who was chief compliance officer under Weis, has been serving as the utility’s interim boss.
Durkan is proposing that Smith be paid $340,000 per year, which would make her Seattle’s highest-paid employee. Weis, who then-Mayor Ed Murray hired away from the electric utility in Austin, Texas, in 2016, had the same salary.
City Light has more than 1,800 employees, has been using hydroelectric power for more than 100 years and calls itself the nation’s greenest utility. But the organization churned out some bad headlines under Weis and his predecessor, Jorge Carrasco.
“The tone starts at the top,” Smith said Tuesday, pledging to treat City Light employees and customers kindly and to “let them know that they matter.”
“With Debra, we are getting a leader who is obsessed with customer service, and we know we need work there,” Durkan said, pointing to high ratings from customers for Lincoln Central under Smith.
In 2016, City Light and Seattle Public Utilities launched a new customer-billing system 11 months late and about $43 million over budget, and the electric utility is gradually installing new “advanced meters,” which send automatic readings to the city.
Meanwhile, City Light has repeatedly hiked its rates, citing heavy spending on capital projects and decreases in energy consumption by customers.
A watchdog panel rang the alarm over what it described as unsustainable spending by the utility this year, when City Light proposed six years of steep rate increases.
Even after scaling back its spending plan by $350 million, City Light sought rate hikes. Last month, the council approved increases of 4.5 percent annually that will boost the monthly bill for a typical residential customer from $65 this year to nearly $85 in 2024.
In her news-conference remarks, Smith said she would seek to keep rates “as low as possible” during a period of transformation for the utility industry. City Light shouldn’t “rest on its heels” in using clean-energy practices to combat climate change, she added.
The Durkan administration and a 22-member community committee carried out a national search for the City Light position. The committee submitted recommendations to the mayor, who interviewed finalists this month.
Baggs now expects to return to his former post, City Light’s interim leader said in an interview Tuesday. He applied for the CEO and general manager job, he said. No internal candidates were among the finalists, Durkan said.
At Central Lincoln, Smith has led an organization with an annual budget of about $98 million. City Light’s annual budget totals more than $1 billion.
“Our service territory primarily covers about 10 small cities stretching from south of Lincoln City to north of Coos Bay,” Smith said in a recent interview about a federal wave-energy test site on the Oregon coast. “We are mostly considered a rural utility.”
Smith lobbied for the site, describing wave energy as an important potential source of renewable electricity. Central Lincoln now buys all its energy from the Bonneville Power Administration, she said.
Smith was hired as Central Lincoln was concluding work on the installation of advanced meters, she said in the interview.
Durkan replied to every question posed at the news conference. When a reporter asked how exactly Smith would address workplace challenges at City Light, the mayor stepped in.
“I’m going to answer for her because it starts with me and our directives,” she said, promising her administration will soon announce actions across departments. “Debra hasn’t had a chance to be on the ground at City Light yet.”
The mayor has taken some time to fill permanent leadership roles at Seattle’s most important departments during her first year in office.
As recently as early July, she had yet to name permanent nominees for City Light and for the police, parks, human-resources, neighborhoods and transportation departments.
The mayor picked interim Police Chief Carmen Best to serve as permanent chief, and the council confirmed Best this month.
Durkan announced additional appointments Monday, tapping her interim human-resources and neighborhoods directors, Sue McNab and Andrés Mantilla, to stay on permanently.