Editorials

Tacoma City Council creates troubling conflicts with utility board choice

Click satellite dishes share space with power equipment at Tacoma Public Utilities offices. TPU staff and employees and the five-member utility board are responsible for keeping the power on, water flowing, cable TV humming and railcars moving.
Click satellite dishes share space with power equipment at Tacoma Public Utilities offices. TPU staff and employees and the five-member utility board are responsible for keeping the power on, water flowing, cable TV humming and railcars moving. News Tribune file photo, 2015

The Tacoma City Council’s recent appointment to the Tacoma Public Utility Board may have more to do with politics than merit, and that’s highly unfortunate.

To be clear, nothing on the resume of new TPU board member Christine Cooley raises questions of her competence. She’s a qualified environmentalist who’s chaired the Sustainable Tacoma Commission and is a climate resiliency program manager for the Pierce Conservation District.

But here’s what’s troubling: City Councilman Ryan Mello also works for the Conservation District, as its executive director. That makes him Cooley’s boss.

Now, pretend for a minute that instead of leading a nonprofit environmental agency, Mello led a company that had business before the TPU board — say, a hypothetical methanol plant. There would be pitchforks and torches if his employees got a voice on the five-member board, a body that has a big say in local water, wires, power grid and utility rates.

In an attempt to avoid bad optics, Mello abstained from voting on Cooley’s appointment, but his influence was palpable.

Consider the precedent this sets. TPU board members are there to speak on behalf of utility customers, not parrot the wishes of a City Council that’s already damaged the independence of the TPU board, nor to please a boss who signs their paychecks.

The public may not be harmed by Cooley’s selection — they may even benefit from it — but that doesn't change the fact that loading boards and commissions with associates or subordinates undermines public trust. 

As City Councilman Conor McCarthy astutely said: “this is fraught with potential for conflicts. We need diversity of opinion, we need diversity of backgrounds.”

To anyone who’s been following the charged relationship between TPU and the City Council the past five years, it should come as no surprise that board member Monique Trudnowski was recently unseated when the council declined to reappoint her. That cleared the way for Cooley.

Trudnowski, who finishes her one and only term this month, is a conservative with a valuable small-business perspective. She’s also one of the few voices on the board who sensibly criticized going “all in” with ratepayer money on the city-owned Click cable network.

As chair of the TPU board, she led a 4 ½-month nationwide search for a new utility director, a process that required strong board collaboration and culminated in last month’s hire of Jackie Flowers, former manager of Idaho Falls Power. 

Back in 2014, we warned voters it was risky to give the City Council too much power over TPU, politicizing what should be a nonaligned agency.

At the time, a charter amendment was on the ballot giving the council new power to confirm a utility director and reconfirm the director’s employment every two years.

The amendment passed, and with it, the games began. The TPU’s director job became, by default, overtly political.

Bill Gaines walked away last year after 10 years in the post. He was pushed. Like Trudnowski, he was an outspoken opponent of the “all in” plan for Click, an opinion that won him few friends on the council but which turned out to be right.

When he left, we called it a “bloodless coup.”

Cooley’s appointment to the TPU board further diminishes the utility’s independence.

City Councilman Anders Ibsen tried to justify the appointment by saying the TPU board was being “rebooted.” We agree, if rebooted means it will more closely mirror the proclivities of the council majority.

Diversity matters on a utility board. TPU has to negotiate competing interests outside board room walls. Without representation from a cross-section of the community, the board, the city and the interests of tens of thousands of ratepayers both inside and outside Tacoma are ultimately weakened.

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