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Seattle City Council OKs big raise for City Light CEO

Paving the way for one of the city government's highest paid employees to get a raise, the Seattle City Council voted on Monday to approve changes to City Light's executive pay scale.

Under the new salary structure, City Light's general manager and CEO could be paid as much as $364,481 per year. While the City Council sets the salary range for the position, any decision about increasing pay for current CEO Jorge Carrasco ultimately lies with Mayor Ed Murray. The mayor supports raising Carrasco's annual pay by approximately $60,000, from roughly $245,000 to about $305,000, according to a spokesperson for Murray's office. A City Personnel Office spokesperson confirmed that Carrasco currently has the highest salary of any Seattle government employee.

The council voted 6-2 to raise the pay range for Carrasco's position. Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Jean Godden, Mike O'Brien and Tom Rasmussen voted for the bill. Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant voted against it. Bruce Harrell was absent from Monday's meeting. The mayor and Councilmembers who backed the wage increase call it necessary if Seattle wants to retain talented candidates for City Light's top job.

"Is it anybody's ideal that we pay what might be considered a huge amount of money to some people? No," said Clark. "We own dams, we own transformers, we own substations, we have people who buy and sell power by the second, we have a complicated department here."

Compensation, Clark said, matters when it comes to keeping qualified management onboard at the utility. "I do want to attract the very best," she said.

Murray offered a similar view during a press conference before the Council meeting. "If Jorge quit tomorrow," he said, "we would have to raise the salary to this level to recruit somebody, if we want to keep this utility at this standard."

Licata was skeptical. "At some point, I believe, public government has to break the cycle of overpaying executives," he said, "and I think this sets a very poor example."

Licata also raised questions about the performance of the utility's management, pointing to surveys of City Light employees from 2004 and 2007. Carrasco took over at City Light in 2003. According to Licata, the 2004 survey showed strong dissatisfaction with the leadership and communication abilities of City Light's management. The 2007 survey, he said, found very little improvement in either of those areas, as well as staffing problems. There has not been a similar employee survey since 2007. City Light spokesperson, Scott Thomsen, said the utility was having discussions about conducting another survey, but that it was not prepared.

Licata said it was difficult to know whether management had improved in more recent years at City Light. "I haven't seen any documentation that it has," he said. "And yet we're proceeding to give a raise that, perhaps in the corporate world would be considered average, but certainly not for a public servant."

Burgess pointed out that Licata voted in 2012 to approve Carrasco's reappointment as City Light's CEO. The reconfirmation process, Burgess said, involved evaluating Carrasco's performance at the utility and meeting with City Light employees to gather feedback. "We voted unanimously to reconfirm him," said Burgess. "We have not failed to live up to our responsibilities to provide oversight in the review of his performance."

Tying future salary increases to performance was the purpose of an amendment to the bill, which the Council also passed on Monday. Introduced by Rasmussen, the amendment said that the Mayor would have to establish "specific goals and expectations" for the CEO. The CEO will need to be making progress toward those goals before additional pay hikes are authorized.

Another amendment the council passed on Monday altered the bill so that a pay raise for Carrasco at this time will not apply retroactively to January 1 and will instead go into effect on July 1. "It's a little bit less of a slap in the face for workers who are going to be waiting for almost a decade to get their $15 an hour," said Sawant, referring to the city's recently passed minimum wage legislation, which involves different, multi-year phase-in periods for larger and smaller businesses. 

The salary range for the City Light CEO position is referred to as a "pay band." Mayor Mike McGinn first proposed raising the pay band for the job last year, and recommended setting the top end around $354,000. Mayor Murray requested the $364,481 upper pay band figure in the bill that passed on Monday. The low end of the pay range in the bill is set at $227,779.


In terms of executive salary, City light ranked 13th out of the 16 regional and national public utilities Seattle's City Personnel Department reviewed last year. Source: City Personnel Department

The city's personnel department analyzed executive salaries at various public utilities last year and found that the annual wage for City Light's CEO was below both the regional median ($295,000) and the national median ($354,711). Of the 16 regional and national public utilities the personnel department looked at, City Light ranked 13th in terms of executive pay.

"You're not going to get the best and brightest for a huge public utility by paying somebody significantly below what the public utility market rate is," Murray said. He added later that despite the scrutiny sometimes directed at government employee salaries in Seattle, compared to other jurisdictions around the state and country, "We're not paying people wild amounts of money."

Seattle City Light photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives.

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