Sawant delays committee vote on Larry Weis confirmation

Energy and Environment Committee chair Kshama Sawant has put off “for a week or so” the confirmation vote on Larry Weis for CEO of Seattle City Light, on the request of a group of environmental activists.

At Monday’s Council Briefing, Sawant gave notice about the request to delay the vote. (Watch the video; jump to 1:17:00) Yesterday the agenda for Thursday’s committee meeting was published, and Weis’ confirmation vote has been removed.

Sawant didn’t specify who “some members of the environmental activist community” are who have requested the delay.  The City Council’s communications staff sent me an anonymized version of the written request they received:

In the past few weeks information has begun to come to public attention regarding Mr. Weis’s conduct while at the City of Austin’s public utility, his thoughts about public oversight of utilities and his relationships with community groups in Austin.

Our membership is very concerned and engaged with this process as you have seen from the hundreds of emails sent to Council offices, and several dozen people who attended the last committee meeting.

We feel that more time is necessary to investigate these concerns and allow constituents to communicate with Councilmembers before the vote. Please let us know
if your office can reschedule this vote.

I’ve submitted a PDR to the City Council’s disclosure officer to obtain more information on the request.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the group requesting the delay is 350 Seattle: they had a strong presence at the last hearing speaking out against his nomination, and in fact Sawant gave some of their members in the “Delta 5” free airtime at the meeting as well (in fact, right before Weis was scheduled to appear to answer questions). It’s clear that Sawant has a very tight relationship with this group of activists, and is willing to promote them in hearings and in her official blog.

Weis was nominated by Mayor Murray on November 18, 2015. It’s now late February. Yes, the changeover to the newly-elected Council members delayed consideration of Weis into the new year, but they have been in place almost two months now. That’s more than enough time to fully consider Weis.

Sawant has made it obvious that she isn’t a fan of Weis, but apparently has not convinced a majority of her colleagues to vote down his appointment because she is in no hurry to schedule his confirmation vote — it would be on tomorrow’s agenda if the vote would have the outcome she desires. All of the issues raised in the email above were addressed in the last hearing, so at this point Sawant and the activists are simply buying time while they go on a fishing expedition for new dirt to sink his appointment.

Weis is being appointed to an important position and needs to be thoroughly vetted. And as a public official he needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for a regular onslaught of criticism.  But that doesn’t excuse a confirmation process that has been drawn out and reduced to unsubstantiated attacks.

Which raises a good question: is Sawant using 350 Seattle and potentially other environmental activists as a bludgeon in her own political game, or is 350 Seattle using Sawant to flex some political muscle of their own? Or both — is this a deal struck for mutual benefit? Either way, Larry Weis and Seattle City Light are paying the price. Weis is already serving as interim CEO until the confirmation vote, in a process mirroring Lynn Peterson’s confirmation as state Transportation Director. In Peterson’s case she served for years while the state Senate sat on the confirmation until two weeks ago they suddenly decided to vote her down — effectively firing her on the spot.

According to the City Council’s calendar, the next scheduled Energy and Environment Committee meeting is Tuesday, March 22; normally one would happen on Tuesday, March 2 but that has already been cancelled. Sawant rescheduled the last two regular committee meetings for different dates, so it’s anyone’s guess when her committee might next meet after tomorrow to vote on Weis’s nomination.  In the meantime, both Weis and Seattle City Light must sit and wait for clarity on the utility’s future leadership.

UPDATE 2/25/16:  In his public comments this morning at the Energy and Environment Committee meeting, Patrick Mazza confirmed that 350 Seattle and Rising Tide were the organizations that requested the delay of Weis’ confirmation.  Mazza read out quotes that he claimed were made by unnamed members of the Austin Utility Commission that called Weis “A great C candidate” and said “Seattle can do better.”

2ND UPDATE 2/25/16:  Sawant has now said that the vote on Larry Weis in her committee on March 8th.  The official City Council calendar still lists that meeting as cancelled, but apparently that is a mistake.