The director of Tacoma Public Utilities, who has faced mounting criticism of late, is retiring after a decade on the job and will leave in December with one year’s pay: $387,650.
Bill Gaines’ retirement was approved at a special Monday meeting of the TPU board, which notified the public of the meeting late Friday afternoon.
Gaines, who is the highest-paid public employee in the county, had been facing consistent criticism from certain board members and said that an increasingly politicized environment was one factor in his decision to retire.
“There are clearly differing thoughts among board members, and probably differing thoughts among the City Council members, about how this place should be governed going forward, and that makes management hard because you’re trying to please a divided governing body,” Gaines told The News Tribune after the meeting. “It’s also clear that the City Council wants more control over TPU, and there are some board members that support that, and there are some board members that don’t, so that’s a factor.”
The ideological divisions among the five appointed members of the utility board have played out publicly in the last year, notably during the debate over how to fund Click Cable TV’s expansion to a municipally owned and operated company that would sell cable, broadband and voice-over-internet service directly to customers.
Gaines had been criticized by some on the City Council for his proposal to lease Click's network to a private company for 40 years. Gaines has said publicly that Click is losing millions of dollars annually, a contention that has been disputed by some who want to see Click remain a public entity.
Board members Bryan Flint, Karen Larkin and Woodrow Jones felt Click’s new business model should be funded partially by Tacoma Power ratepayer revenues, but members Mark Patterson and Monique Trudnowski voiced concerns that would be illegal.
In June, the utility board’s divisions surfaced again when it came time to vote on whether to reconfirm Gaines for another two years. He was reconfirmed, 3-2, and Jones, Patterson and Trudnowski heaped praise on the director while Larkin and Flint sharply criticized him.
Larkin said Gaines lacks respect for the city charter as well as City Council and board members he doesn’t agree with. She said he hadn’t operated the utility in a transparent manner and that the director should “possess strong public and political acumen.”
“I do not have the confidence in director Gaines’ ability to guide policymakers through these critical decisions in an open and inclusive matter. I believe it is time for new leadership at TPU, someone that embraces the ‘T’ in TPU stands for Tacoma and the ‘P’ in TPU stands for public,” Larkin said at the time.
If he hadn’t chosen to retire, Gaines would have had to face being reconfirmed by the City Council, which appoints members to the TPU board. A 2014 change to the Tacoma city charter gave the council a vote on whether to re-up the utility director every two years, and it also gave the council a vote on whomever the utility board picks as its next director. In 2015, the council voted to reconfirm Gaines, with Councilman Anders Ibsen the sole “no” vote.
Gaines said Monday he had no communications with City Council members about how they might have voted on his reconfirmation, but he said he got the idea that “anything is possible.” That indecision also was a factor in his decision to leave, he said.
Many residents who spoke at the Monday meeting took issue with the short notice and the severance package offered to Gaines.
In addition to one year’s pay, the board agreed to pay Gaines’ COBRA medical-insurance premiums for 12 months. If he gets a job within that period with comparable medical insurance coverage, he would have to pay back the unused portion of the premiums, according to the agreement.
On Monday, even the board members who voiced disapproval of Gaines’ work defended the separation agreement. Gaines’ contract also called for him to receive a year’s pay had the City Council voted to oust him.
“Some of the elements, especially the dollar figures involved in this, for a lot of people who live at the median income of Tacoma … it’s hard for me to even imagine being able to receive dollars like that,” Flint said. “But that’s the world we live in. We benefit that we are a public utility because if we were a private utility, we would be talking about millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Board members said Monday they plan to work quickly and search nationwide for a new director. Gaines’ last day is Dec. 2.
In a news release, TPU said Gaines oversaw the construction of a $200 million water filtration plant on the Green River, entered into a long-term rail operating agreement with the Port of Tacoma and launched an effort to increase focus on customer service, among other projects, during his tenure as director.
The City Council is also expected to vote on Gaines’ retirement agreement.