The second public hearing on Larry Weis’s confirmation as CEO of Seattle City Light took place tonight.Energy and Environment Committee chair Kshama Sawant made sure that the forces opposing Weis’ nomination were well represented. She opened the meeting with what could only be described as a “verbal group hug” with the Delta 5, local activists who were arrested while blocking a coal train but avoided jail time. Council member Mike O’Brien, the Council’s resident kayaktivist, showed up and joined in on the love-fest. Most of the members of the Delta 5 who appeared are also members of 350 Seattle, a local environmental activism group. Yesterday Sawant posted on the City Council’s blog a letter that 350 Seattle sent to its members that, through some amazing coincidence, repeats the criticisms of Weis that Sawant has been voicing and calls for fellow environmental activists to show up to tonight’s hearing to voice their disapproval of Weis’s appointment.
And show up they did, repeating the same talking points. Though Weis had his supporters during the public comment period too, including a spokesperson fro a group of business owners (customers of SCL) and the head of the SCL review committee who was also on the CEO search committee.
When Weis got the chance to speak, he was clearly upset about the things that were being said about him, especially the accusation that he was not a supporter of green energy technologies. Unlike last time when he was not the greatest public speaker, this time he was prepared, clear and forceful. He directly countered the accusations, and in particular the claim that he had pushed for a new 500MW natural gas generation plant that the city council didn’t want. He explained that in fact it was to replace an older 970MW gas generation plant, so it was a reduction in natural gas generation, and that the Austin city council did, in fact, approve the plan — as did the Sierra Club, despite a local spokesperson for the Sierra Club speaking out tonight against his nomination in part because of that project. He was also prepared to rattle off statistics about the increase in renewable energy generation over the course of his term in Austin.
Council members O’Brien, Gonzalez and Juarez asked another round of hard questions of Weis, and he seemed much better prepared to respond tonight. I’m sure the Council members will fact-check his responses thoroughly. O’Brien in particular wanted to make sure that the city hires someone who will push SCL to be as green as possible. Juarez asked him point-blank if he supported fracking: Weis gave a one-word answer: “No.” Gonzalez asked him about a contentious project to remove an older plant in a poorer area of Austin (one where Gonzalez’s friends in Austin reported that Weis was hard to work with) and Weis explained that it was a project he inherited as he came into the job that already had problems and contention. (again, I’m sure Gonzalez will fact-check that).
Weis made a particularly strong statement about how Seattle’s power generation is already largely green, and how natural-gas generation will never be a part of the mix of generation sources. Instead, he said, he spoke to his vision of adding some other renewable sources into the mix, including potentially wind, solar, geothermal, “small hydro.”
O’Brien spoke to his belief that the Seattle City Light CEO should be a leader in the Pacific Northwest region on renewables, pushing partners and colleagues to move in the same direction. He asked Weis how he would carry “Seattle values” to colleagues and partners who don’t share our values. Weis’s answer was simple: “I will show them.” He spoke to his experience in growing renewable programs and in the financing to make them feasible, and said that he would use his experience, reputation in the industry, and existing relationships with those partners (some of which he knows already) to lead them in the right direction.
Given the disagreement over his history in Austin, I have no doubt there will be more fact-checking, and Sawant has not indicated when the committee might vote on his nomination. She did, however, close the meeting tonight by taking several more shots at Weis (and not giving him the chance to respond). She repeated that her office had spoken with three different environmental organizations in Austin (without naming them) who weren’t happy with his environmental leadership; she said that his support for municipal broadband at the last hearing “didn’t show forcefulness;” and she knocked him again (well, more the Mayor’s Office) for his $375,000 salary — which in fairness is below the median for public utility executives and well below the median for private utility execs.
While Sawant continues her campaign to undermine his appointment, Gonzalez, Juarez and O’Brien are being more coy with their preference — or perhaps they haven’t taken a position yet. They are certainly doing their job by asking hard questions and looking into his background. Depending upon what they find, they may end up agreeing with Sawant that the city can do better. Sawant did invite the rest of the Council members to tonight’s hearing, and it’s a shame that they couldn’t — or chose not to — participate. Hopefully several of them have also had individual meetings with him.