Charter change would politicize Tacoma Public Utilities

The people of Tacoma have the choice this election to reaffirm the city charter that has provided them first-class utility service – free of political interference – or change it and allow the City Council to apply political pressures on utility management. We urge a “no” vote on Charter Amendment 6.

Tacoma Public Utilities’ current governance structure is directly accountable to the public. TPU’s employees answer to the TPU director, and the director answers to the Utility Board – made up of five citizen members appointed by the City Council. The charter says the board – not the council – has management authority over TPU. The board hires, supervises and evaluates the director. They can fire him with a simple majority vote. They also decide on budgets and rates, but share that authority with the council.

Tacoma’s utility governance was established in the 1950s. It has served this community well. TPU is recognized regionally and nationally for financial discipline, far-sighted planning and politics-free management.

Putting a citizen board in charge of TPU was a message to city hall that utility service should be free of politics and that utility revenues should be used only to benefit customers.

Here’s why putting the director under the council’s thumb is a bad idea:

The Utility Board is appointed by, but independent of, the City Council. Board members have one duty: to ensure that TPU’s complex businesses are properly managed for the benefit of all customers. Unlike the council, they don’t have campaign donors to please and can withstand pressures to transfer utility customer funds to non-utility projects – like Tacoma Dome “naming rights” or other pet council projects.

Community leaders – including university professors, physicians, engineers, attorneys, business and labor leaders, and even former City Council members – have served on the Utility Board, which for 60 years has fulfilled its role as an independent body protecting TPU’s customers.

The proposed charter amendment would create two bad management situations.

What TPU does for its customers involves long-term horizons. Dams are planned for, built and operated for decades. Water delivery and treatment facilities are the same. The chief executive of TPU should have a sufficiently long tenure to manage those projects through and to be accountable for their outcomes. A manager who has no job security beyond two years is a manager who focuses on short-term issues.

As the director’s boss, the board establishes job goals and supervises the director, annually reviews his performance, and decides whether he should be kept on. Under Amendment 6, the entire board could give a director a 100 percent positive job review, but just five members of the City Council could fire him – for bad reasons, or for no reason.

The council could fire a good director who did everything he or she was hired to do –but perhaps not everything that was politically popular with the council.

Compare the Utility Board’s management record to that of the City Council. TPU has long had stable management with close supervision by the board. In contrast, over the past 10 years, the city has had three “permanent” city managers and two “interim” city managers.

The result? Management turnover again and again, runaway budgets and crumbling infrastructure throughout the city. Does anyone seriously think that the City Council can do better than the board in running TPU?

Proposition 6 would open TPU up to political influence and control.

Currently the City Council has co-approval with the Utility Board of TPU’s budget and rates. The council also sets all salaries. But this City Council wants more control over TPU by controlling the director.

If the charter is amended, any director would think twice – or more – about telling a council member that TPU couldn’t fund a pet project or do all the other things dear to the council member’s heart. Also, it would be extremely difficult to recruit and retain a highly qualified utility executive for such a risky two-year position.

The Utility Board now shields TPU from politics, but the City Council thrives on it. Which is more likely to have the interests of utility customers at heart?

Ted Coates served as director of Tacoma Public Utilities from 1986 to 1993, and Mark Crisson served as director from 1993 to 2007. Crisson also served as president of the American Public Power Association from 2007 to 2014.