Sawant picks a fight with Larry Weis

Council member Kshama Sawant beat up on Larry Weis, the Mayor’s appointment for General Manager and CEO of Seattle City Light. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t deserved.

You can watch the whole session here.

To be sure, Weis did himself no favors in the question-and-answer session this afternoon. His opening statement was pretty flat, and the low point was when he stated that his “vision” was to move back to the Seattle area because he has family here. I doubt public speaking tops his skill set; he stammered through some of his answers and it was sometimes difficult to tell what point he was trying to make. And, of course, his previous reported comments about his difficulties working for the Austin city council in his previous job set a poor tone for his new relationship with his new prospective boss, the Seattle city council.

But Sawant, for some reason, decided that she needed to extract a pound of flesh from the guy. In between her frequent speeches, she laid traps for him. She pressed him to agree that environmental sustainability was the only issue worth consideration when considering a power utility’s sources, and called him to the carpet on his proposal for a large natural-gas generation plant in Austin. Weis tried to explain that he is a strong supporter of solar power, but that it is more expensive than other traditional sources and utilities in that region choose to invest in a combination of renewable and traditional generation to mitigate the cost increases. He also pointed out that energy politics are extremely intense in Texas, and Austin, as the state capitol, comes under extreme scrutiny by the oil and gas industry. Weis, reporting to political appointees, clearly needed to be responsive to political realities. The city wanted to “move their renewable portfolio forward, and be affordable,” and needed to have extremely affordable natural gas generation in order to offset the currently higher prices of renewables.

Sawant also quoted him out of context saying “Solar is a good thing. The task force wants too much of a good thing,” as if he were making a general comment about the virtue of solar power. She forced him to tell a long story about how the solar advocates in Austin wanted a larger investment than Austin could manage based upon an affordability goal in place. Weis explained that as the CEO he needed to find the balance between sustainability goals and affordability goals, in an environment where natural gas generated power drove the market prices to extreme lows. Sawant lectured him again on how environmental sustainability was the primary issue — though I suspect if Seattle City Light raised its rates Sawant would the first to cry foul on behalf of workers. Ironically, later on in the interview she pointed out her objections to having large corporations such as Boeing enjoying more favorable power rates than residential customers.

Strangely, Sawant got an “assist” from Council member Juarez. In an uncharacteristically confrontational question, she asked Weis whether it would be difficult for him to report to the Seattle city council (which in turn reports to the voters). Perhaps that was simply a response to the reports of his criticism of the Austin city council as being “naive” about energy-related issues, but it placed Weis in a no-win situation, with Sawant arguing that he should show complete independence from his political appointee bosses, and Juarez arguing that he needed to show deference to them.

Sawant also pressed him on  his salary — a pet issue for Sawant that she at least gave warning of by listing it in the questions the Council went to Weis in advance. Pointing out that his proposed $340,000 salary is 10 times the average city worker’s salary (and speechifying on her own decision to refuse much of her salary), Sawant challenged him to defend it. The Deputy Mayor for Operations, Kate Joncas responded by saying that the city had done salary studies in advance and negotiated Weis’s to be less than the median of public energy company executives, and substantially less than the median of private energy company executives — but that the Mayor is committed to offering competitive salaries to ensure that Seattle can hire top talent. Sawant clearly wasn’t buying it (a strange response for an economist), but at least chose not to force Weis to respond directly — which would really have put him in a bind.

Sawant is apparently fond of quoting Weis out of context. In the written questions, she asked:

In describing your approach to management at Austin Energy to the American Statesman during an exit interview, you said: “I had to say, here is where we are going and what we’re doing, everybody get behind it and let’s start marching that way.” Please explain how the City Council and City Light workforce should interpret that statement. Is it representative of your general approach to management? If not, what is your approach to management and leadership?

Council member Sawant, I hate to break it to you, but sometimes EVERY executive needs to say that. Sometimes — not all the time. And if you read the interview, the comment was in the context of a specific moment when the utility was facing a severe financial crisis — not a general description of his approach to management. In a time of crisis, that’s called “leadership.” Unless you’re picking a fight.

To be fair, Sawant, Juarez and Council member Gonzalez asked many good questions of Weis too. They asked for concrete examples of diversity initiatives he championed in Austin Energy. Sawant asked for his thoughts on municipal broadband (another pet issue). Juarez asked him about the race and social justice efforts in Seattle — and Gonzalez extended that to climate change issues and pressed Weis on his willingness to be a “progressive leader” on these issues (especially climate change). Sawant asked him about his role in implementing improvements to the low-income discount programs in Austin  (and praised him for the auto-enrollment approach). Gonzalez asked him about how he would “work across silos in government.” Juarez asked him about his relationship with labor.

Sawant is scheduling another hearing on his nomination to allow for additional public comment and for other Council members to ask questions of him. She didn’t show her cards today on whether she will support his appointment or try to block it. Weis said many things that she clearly liked, not the least of which was his strong support for municipal broadband and low-income discounts. But Sawant went out of her way to pick a fight on several issues, which suggests that she might be looking for a reason to say “no.”