The City Council appointed a new face to the Tacoma Public Utilities board on Tuesday, passing over people with experience at the utility and marking a shift in direction for the five-member board.
Christine Cooley, who works for the Pierce Conservation District and has chaired the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, had been recommended by the council's Government Performance and Finance Committee.
Cooley, 33, beat out incumbent Monique Trudnowski, a career restaurateur who ran for chair of the state Republican party this year and served one five-year term on the board. Cooley also was picked over Robert Mack, who served as a deputy director of Tacoma Public Utilities from 2007 to 2017.
The decision by the committee and full council to go with an applicant who champions environmental causes and to pass on applicants with former ties to the utility is a sign of the new direction the council wants to take.
"Why we decided to appoint Ms. Cooley to the seat was because, as we see in many ways, TPU is in a reboot," said Councilman Anders Ibsen, who made the motion to appoint her. "We have a new director coming online, and many times with many large institutions it's very healthy to periodically have a fresh set of eyes from experienced candidates to take the helm and periodically refresh the leadership."
Trudnowski was ousted at the culmination of months of work to find a new director for TPU. The City Council is expected to vote to confirm Jackie Flowers as the utility's new director next week. Flowers, the general manager of Idaho Falls Power, was chosen by the utility board from a list of three finalists after a lengthy and transparent search process, of which Trudnowski was at the forefront.
While she was applauded by the council for that process and for other projects she undertook, Trudnowski cast some unpopular votes while on the board.
She was a strong supporter of former TPU director Bill Gaines, who was increasingly controversial among the board and council and retired last year after the board repealed its vote to reconfirm him.
Trudnowski also voted against a plan to fund a revamp of the Click Cable TV network using Tacoma Power revenues, saying such funding was likely illegal (the city is now fighting a lawsuit to that effect). Trudnowski said she preferred a private partner be selected to run Click at a time when the City Council and board were championing a future for the network that would keep it publicly owned and operated.
Trudnowski, who co-owned the Adriatic Grill, was a conservative voice during her time on the board and was an advocate for small businesses, often speaking out about ways in which the utility’s policies and potential rate increases would affect local businesses and lower-income families. She clashed with other board and council members on what to do about Click, which TPU staff have said is operating at a loss.
Councilman Conor McCarthy was the only council member to speak against Cooley's appointment. Councilman Ryan Mello is the executive director of the Pierce Conservation District, where Cooley works, and McCarthy said that could create a situation where the utility board and council are too closely aligned.
Mello abstained from the vote to appoint Cooley, both at the committee level and Tuesday night. McCarthy said there still could be conflicts of interest going forward.
"This puts the utility, I believe, and the council in a very challenging position. The public utility and the City Council, while we need to partner, while we need to collaborate, we need to remain independent," McCarthy said. "If we're appointing someone who's an employee of a City Council member's organization, I just think that is fraught with potential for conflicts. We need diversity of opinion, we need diversity of backgrounds."
Councilwoman Catherine Ushka rejected that assertion.
"By definition this is a part-time council. Frequently council members historically, and I’m sure into the future, might be leaders of larger organizations," Ushka said. But people shouldn't be kept from participating in city boards and commissions because they work at the same organization as a council member, she added.
Cooley said Wednesday she's excited for the opportunity to work with the TPU staff and focus on innovation in sustainability. She said she's worked with TPU staff many times in her job as climate resiliency program manager and in her role on the Sustainable Tacoma Commission and said she's consistently impressed by their dedication.
"I’m really excited. I know there were a lot of great candidates, and it's a very pivotal time for TPU," Cooley said. "I think there are opportunities for green jobs, for conservation, for incentive programs specifically targeting low-income residents. They already do a great, great job offering those incentives, but the participation isn't there."