Another council scheme to politicize utilities

The News TribuneJuly 11, 2014 

Back in February, we predicted that as sure as the sun rises on Commencement Bay, the Tacoma City Council would exploit the charter review process to grab for political control of Tacoma Public Utilities.

The sun did rise. We wish the council had proven us wrong, but some of its members are indeed making the grab.

On Tuesday, the council will decide whether to put a series of proposed charter amendments — revisions to the city’s constitution — on the November ballot. One of them, proposed Amendment 6, would require that a director of TPU be confirmed by the City Council after being chosen by the Public Utility Board.

Council confirmation of a new director is not a fantastic idea, but it isn’t an outright dumb one. It doesn’t threaten to unduly politicize Tacoma Power and other utilities.

That’s the big risk here. TPU must be kept largely independent of the council. Utility leaders must look decades in advance when planning major projects, such as regional pipelines and power sources. Tacoma’s highly political and often shortsighted City Council has long shown an inclination to micro-meddle in utility operations, especially with schemes to dip into ratepayer revenues.

The council would be a dangerous overseer of TPU management, which is why the charter wisely provided for the non-political utility board.

This year, under cover of the review process, someone has quietly embedded in Amendment 6 a truly bad provision: Requiring that the TPU director — after the original confirmation — be reconfirmed by the council every two years.

In other words, councilmembers would become the director’s masters. Though the utility board directly supervises and evaluates the director, the council — which does neither — could step in at two-year intervals and peremptorily fire him or her.

This would guarantee politicization.

For some councilmembers, it would create an irresistible temptation to insert themselves into utility management and policy. The ever-present prospect of reconfirmation would be an implicit threat to the director’s job. He or she might get a glowing evaluation from the Utility Board — yet still get canned by politicians with axes to grind.

The board would have a much tougher time recruiting top-tier executives if they knew their continued employment would always depend on the whim of officials with little understanding of utilities.

What problem would the reconfirmations solve? What’s broken that needs to be fixed? The real problem is that the City Council, as an institution, can never quite let go of its hunger to call the shots at TPU — as this amendment proves once again.

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