In the last 25 years, Tacoma has had seven mayors and five city managers. Over the same period, only two people have led Tacoma Public Utilities.
TPU directors have unusual staying power in part because the job requires a rare blend of skills: technical grasp of the city’s electric, water, rail and cable utilities; business savvy to oversee a billion-dollar budget; and management acumen to keep staff morale high, utility rates low and long-range utility projects on track.
It’s not only the most highly compensated job in Tacoma government (a $387,650 salary last year), it also pays more than twice what Gov. Jay Inslee earns.
Filling this position, therefore, should be done with all due care and public consent.
Now the TPU board and the Tacoma City Council are in the home stretch of hiring their third director since 1993. Kudos to them for a thoughtful, 4 1/2-month search informed by a wide range of stakeholders — from neighborhood associations to native tribes, from labor leaders to ratepayers. That includes the 40 percent of TPU territory that falls outside Tacoma and at times gets marginalized by Tacoma-centric decisions.
City officials wisely decided to go through a broad community reckoning after the previous TPU chief, Bill Gaines, stepped down last year. He was flushed from the political fishbowl amid controversy over the future of the city’s Click cable system.
“This is going to be a very public position, and we have to be comfortable with that,” utility board chair Monique Trudnowski told the Editorial Board last week, a day before three finalists were announced.
The finalists have a good range of Northwest utility experience. They are: Jackie Flowers, general manager of Idaho Falls Power; John Hairston, chief administrative officer at Bonneville Power Administration in Portland; and Nav Otal, utilities director for the City of Bellevue.
All three were in Tacoma this week for a public reception, open interviews and televised presentations of their vision for TPU.
That’s a vast improvement in transparency compared to 2007, when Gaines was promoted from Tacoma Power superintendent. The utility board wouldn’t even identify the other four director finalists, let alone allow the public to meet them.
Gaines went on to hold the job for 10 years. When he retired last summer, we described it as the bloodless coup of a straight-talking, cost-conscious utility director. We voiced concern that word would get around and hurt TPU’s chances of attracting top executive talent.
This will be the first hire of a utility director since the job became highly politicized in 2014, when Tacoma voters approved an ill-advised charter amendment. After decades reporting solely to the utility board, the TPU chief now must be confirmed by the City Council at time of hire, then reconfirmed every two years.
Serving at the council’s pleasure can make things untenable for a director who gets crosswise with politicians’ pet projects — say, when he stands up against continued bailouts of the cable TV network.
We’re concerned about TPU’s independence, and won’t be surprised if it sees more turnover at the top after a quarter century of stability.
But the recent public outreach and show of collaboration by the utility board and City Council offer reason for optimism, at least in the short term.
“We’re all working together to do what’s best for the city,” Mayor Victoria Woodards told the Editorial Board.
It helps that internal divisions over Click appear to be closing; more city leaders have accepted that recruiting private partners, not raiding electric funds, is the best (and legal) way to pay for Click’s ambitious goals.
All this gives us hope that the TPU director chosen by the utility board next week will have a glide path to council confirmation next month. No matter who wins the job, the public can’t say it was shut out of the process.