Council confirms Larry Weis as head of Seattle City Light

This afternoon the full City Council, by a 7-2 vote, confirmed the Mayor’s nomination of Larry Weis as the new General Manager and CEO of Seattle City Light.

The two “no” votes came from Energy and Environment Committee chair Kshama Sawant and Council member Mike O’Brien. Both repeated their comments from two weeks ago, when the committee voted 3-2 to recommend confirmation, that they felt Weis would not be the strong environmental leader that they were looking for in the position. The committee’s divided report is here.

The list of requirements for the job is long and challenging to match, to be sure.  The Mayor and Council collectively were looking for someone who is not only capable of managing a public utility company with a $1 billion revenue stream, but also an advocate for worker safety (in what can be a very dangerous industry) and workers’ rights. They also wanted to see someone with a strong commitment to the city’s race and social justice initiative, and of course a dedication to clean energy (Seattle City Light’s current energy sources are 90% clean, mostly hydroelectric).

Sawant and O’Brien had previously questioned his environmental record, based mainly on the creation of a 500 megawatt natural gas generation plant in 2011 during his time at the helm of Austin Energy; the history of the project is disputed between Weis, other Austin officials, and environmental activists both here and in Texas. Sawant and O’Brien also characterize his race and social justice commitment as tepid, with a mixed record in Austin.

The other seven members of the Council voted in favor of his nomination, but several took the time to request that Weis listen to the negative feedback and take it to heart. Weis has already committed to creating an officer-level position focused on environmental issues that would report directly to him and to involve local environmental advocates in the process of filling the position. Council members noted that as a good sign that he had heard their feedback.

Council member Lisa Herbold brought up a tangential issue she has been exploring: bonus pay for city officials. Her office’s research has shown that the city has been phasing out bonus pay and suggested that Weis might be the only current employee with a performance-related bonus as part of his compensation package. His employment offer lists an 8% bonus; the performance goals related to it, and the final decision as to whether to grant it, lie solely with the Mayor. Herbold is not happy with those terms and would like to see more transparency and potentially a public process for heling to determine awards of performance-related bonuses.  Sawant chimed in with her oft-repeated complaint about Weis’s $340,000 annual salary (before bonus), which is below the median for public utility executives and well below the median for private utility executives; she wondered why someone being paid that much needs a bonus on top of it.

Council member Burgess was most effusive in his praise of Weis, saying that is was “delighted” to vote to confirm. He lauded Weis’s industry and management experience, and said that he was particularly impressed with Weis’s “business enterprise perspective.”

Both Sawant and O’Brien, recognizing that they were outnumbered, sounded a conciliatory tone, both agreeing to work with Weis moving forward. O’Brien in particular said that he looked forward to being proven wrong in his concerns.

Harrell closed the comments by noting that “This council doesn’t rubber stamp critical positions.” “It should be crystal clear,” he Added, that we are watching the position, not because it’s you but because it’s such a critical position to us.”

“I am truly honored,” Weis said in his brief acceptance speech. He went on to promise to take and use the feedback from the Council.

Weis goes back in front of the Energy and Environment Committee tomorrow for a regular report.