Another big check coming to highest paid public employee in Pierce County

Bill Gaines shown at Tacoma Public Utilities headquarters in 2012.
Bill Gaines shown at Tacoma Public Utilities headquarters in 2012. Courtesy

Tacoma Public Utilities Director Bill Gaines’ exit — and severance package, totaling more than $400,000, including health care benefits — is in motion: The City Council approved his separation agreement Tuesday.

Gaines will stay in his current job, which he’s held for a decade, until close to the end of the year after the City Council voted to reconfirm him for the time between when his contract ends Sept. 22 and Dec. 2.

He said in an interview last week that his brief stay should help ease the transition as the public utility board searches for a new director.

Some former and current utility board members already are concerned about how that process will play out.

Gaines, the highest paid public employee in the county with a $387,650 salary, told the utility board he wanted to retire in July.

In June, he was narrowly reconfirmed for another two years by that five-member body, and has faced mounting criticism from some utility board and City Council members about issues ranging from the handling of Click Cable TV’s expansion into a new business model to the structure of recent rate increases.

He’s being paid a year’s salary plus health-care benefits in severance because his departure falls under the category of involuntary termination — the City Council never took up a vote to reconfirm Gaines for another two years (as the city charter requires) and the utility board last week repealed its June vote to reconfirm him.

Those events and others trigger a severance clause in his contract, said city attorney Bill Fosbre.

Gaines said last week the increased politicization of the utility board and differing opinions about how the utility should be run were factors in his decision to leave before the City Council voted on his reconfirmation.

“As communities evolve, you sometimes need to go in a different direction and have different leadership,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tuesday night, and thanked Gaines for his service.

Before Tuesday’s vote, utility board Chairwoman Monique Trudnowski took issue with two parts of the City Council’s resolution.

One would use the city’s human resources department to hire a firm to conduct the search for TPU’s next director. The other requests input from the mayor, City Council, city manager and others in choosing the next director.

“The verbiage, although benign, is very similar to a walk-on amendment that was voted down by the TPU board last week,” Trudnowski told the council.

She said she worries that sets a precedent: The utility board votes against something, only to have the City Council — which appoints members to the utility board — later approve it.

Strickland said both parts of the resolution are good government measures.

“The highest paid person in our organization should be someone who has a thorough vetting process, and we are prepared to work cooperatively and in strong partnership with the utility board to make that happen,” she said. “As far as the assertion that this is meddling — it’s not meddling when you do your job.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud