Watchdog

Click managers negotiating severance pay, retention bonuses

A Tacoma Link light rail train car displays an advertisement for Click Networks — the local cable TV, high-speed internet and broadband services provider — in June 2008. Click’s cable TV operation has struggled since its inception in the late 1990s, including losing $7.6 million a year, according to Tacoma Public Utilities officials.
A Tacoma Link light rail train car displays an advertisement for Click Networks — the local cable TV, high-speed internet and broadband services provider — in June 2008. Click’s cable TV operation has struggled since its inception in the late 1990s, including losing $7.6 million a year, according to Tacoma Public Utilities officials. Staff file, 2008

If Tacoma leases Click Cable TV to an outside company, about 90 workers at the city-owned cable system would be out of a job.

City officials have said that should the lease happen, they would try to find those workers other jobs and, if that fails, offer them severance packages.

Managers, though, aren’t waiting to see if the City Council decides to pursue the lease before coming up with exit strategies.

Records show that as early as March 20, Click general manager Tenzin Gyaltsen was emailing Tacoma Public Utilities executives about a “retention and severance agreement.” That was 11 days before Wave’s lease proposal was revealed to the public.

Possible details about the agreement are blacked out, with the city citing a state law that exempts drafts from public disclosure.

TPU Director Bill Gaines said Monday the “retention and severance agreements” for managers are not finalized, but hoped they would be “soon.” Gaines declined to say how many managers would be covered by the agreements, only that it was more than 10.

With Click’s future in limbo, the agreements are necessary to keep managers who understand the business, he said.

“We think it’s the right thing to do,” he said Monday. “Even if the Wave proposal doesn’t go through, we want our managers to be focused on their work.”

Click has struggled since its inception in the late 1990s. It has lost cable customers steadily, while making small gains in the Internet-only market. In 2014, Wave Broadband of Kirkland asked TPU to consider leasing the city’s fiber network for 40 years.

Since then, TPU and Tacoma leaders have met several times to consider options for Click’s future, including keeping Click under city control. Utility officials have said Click is losing $7.6 million per year, and that Tacoma Power’s 170,000 customers cover the losses.

We think it’s the right thing to do. Even if the Wave proposal doesn’t go through, we want our managers to be focused on their work.

TPU Director Bill Gaines

Gaines said he offered to start negotiations for a severance agreement with the unions that represent Click’s rank-and-file workers when the Wave proposal was outlined in March, but the union’s leadership declined.

Alice Phillips, business manager for IBEW Local 483, said that’s false. Her union represents the bulk of the unionized workforce at Click.

“We have never declined to to bargain any kind of severance package for our people,” Phillips said.

More than 70 people are in the IBEW 483 union, she said, and the union is in the third of three years on its most recent contract. Phillips said the union and city are in talks to extend the contract by one year.

Employees in her unit are “stressed out to the max” because they don’t know if the city will keep Click, Phillips said.

Bryan Flint, a TPU Board member, said Monday that he did not know about the retention and severance packages in the works for managers.

“At this point, nobody’s leaving because no decision about the future of Click has been made,” Flint said.

Only two nonunion city employees have employment contracts that include severance agreements: City Manager T.C. Broadnax and Gaines.

Broadnax has 12 months of severance payments baked into his contract if he is let go, and another six months if he hasn’t found work by then. He is earning $243,318 this year.

Gaines’ employment agreement says he would get a year of pay if “terminated without cause.” He is earning $338,229 this year.

City code says the TPU director, city manager or the TPU Board can pay to “secure or retain key qualified personnel” up to $15,000 per year in extra pay, benefits or both. The director, city manager or board cannot hand out more than $100,000 per year in extra pay and benefits.

The manager and utility director can also pay severance up to $200,000 — their authority to sign contracts without council or TPU Board approval. City code also says the council and TPU Board can authorize severance payments up to a full year of salary.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

kate.martin@thenewstribune.com

@KateReports

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