Larry Weis nomination headed for full Council vote

This afternoon the Energy and Environment Committee voted by the thinnest of margins to recommend confirmation of Larry Weis’ appointment as CEO of Seattle City Light.

This was the third hearing in Weis’ confirmation process. When last we left this saga, a handful of local environmental groups, including 350 Seattle, Rising Tide Seattle, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, were voicing strong opposition to his nomination and begged for a delay in the confirmation vote (which committee chair Sawant granted) so that they could further investigate concerns about his record at Austin Energy. A central issue was Weis’ push for construction of a 500-megawatt natural-gas-fired electrical generation plant as part of a larger plan that would replace a larger, older and less efficient gas plant with a mix of gas and solar power generation. The Sierra Club representative in Seattle (among others) claimed that Weis was pushing hard for more gas and less solar. However, Weis countered that the Sierra Club chapter in Austin was at the table through the process of defining the plan and signed off on the end result.  350 Seattle and Sierra Club were back today to voice their concerns during the public comment session, but without a smoking gun; the worst that Jesse Piedfort of the Sierra Club’s Seattle group could say was that according to his colleagues in Austin their relationship with Weis was “fairly adversary” and the power plan in question required hard negotiating.  Weis was described by his detractors: “Larry wasn’t the fossil fuel lover that some have described him as, but he’s also not a green energy visionary either.”

That “middle of the pack” rating would come to dominate the discussion and evaluation of Weis this afternoon, despite strong approval for his appointment from labor and local heavy-industry representatives. The nod from labor clearly caused heartache for Sawant, for whom workers’ rights is a top — if not THE top — issue.

An interesting tidbit came out this afternoon: that Weis recently proposed creating a Director-level position within Seattle City Light specifically focused on environmental issues. This was seen by many as a positive sign that Weis is willing to prioritize those issues.

In addition to Sawant, four other Council members were present this afternoon:  Juarez, Johnson, O’Brien and Gonzalez. All five took their turn stating their position on Weis’ nomination and their reasons for taking it. All spoke to their desire to have the Seattle City Light CEO show “environmental boldness” in working towards the city’s Climate Action Plan and all were concerned that Weis would not do so, though that was a make-or-break issue for both Sawant and noted kayaktivist O’Brien, the two hardline environmentalists on the Council. Both Sawant and O’Brien voted against recommending Weis’ approval.

Neither, Johnson, Juarez nor Gonzalez had effusive praise for Weis despite all three deciding to vote “yes.” Johnson pointed out that while Weis doesn’t meet 100% of the qualifications for the position, he doubted that any candidate would. Juarez voiced her doubts about Weis’ environmental record and her desire to see environmental boldness from him, and Gonzalez went further to describe “very problematic stories” she had heard from her friends in Austin about his interactions with communities of color — but that wasn’t enough for her to say “no.”

Sawant also reiterated her unhappiness with Weis’ proposed salary, which while below the median for public utility executives is several multiples of “an ordinary worker’s salary,” Sawant’s favorite point of comparison. Which raises an ironic truth. In the end, the City may be getting a middle-of-the-pack CEO at a middle-of-the-range price.

The 3-2 vote to send the nomination to the full Council with a recommendation for approval was a strange one, in that no one seemed happy with it; it was more a recognition of an exhaustive and exhausting confirmation process for a candidate that checked many boxes but wowed no one. (Juarez, the committee vice chair, reiterated in great details the steps on the path to today, declaring it “rigorous” and that “we know everything we need to know about Mr. Weis.”) Both Juarez and Gonzalez expressed hope that Weis would, in Juarez’s words,  “surprise us with your boldness.” Gonzalez expressed her own hope that Weis had learned lessons from his time at Austin Energy.   O’Brien and Sawant reiterated their belief that Seattle could do better, but promised to work cooperatively with him if the full Council confirmed him (as they expect it to) and both hoped that they would be proven wrong in time.

After the meeting adjourned, both Sawant and O’Brien personally approached and congratulated Weis, who sat in the audience throughout the hearing with his wife. O’Brien told Weis, “I was serious about that. I want to be proven wrong.” That grace and charity bodes well for Weis, who if confirmed will spend the next two years — and perhaps more — under the close scrutiny of Sawant in her role as Energy and Environment Committee chair.

With the split vote today, Council rules require an extra week before the confirmation vote can come before the full Council, so expect it on the March 21 agenda along with a divided report summarizing the arguments on both sides.