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Seattle’s highest paid employee wants a bonus

Screen grab of Seattle Light CEO Larry Weis in an Energy Thought Summit profile video. Credit: Energy Thought Summit

When Larry Weis was confirmed as the CEO of Seattle City Light in March 2016, he instantly became the highest paid city employee, earning $340,000 a year, nearly double what Mayor Ed Murray makes and $70,000 more than the next person on the list. He’s also the only department head eligible for a bonus — up to 8 percent or nearly $30,000. The one-year mark this March was his time to evaluate his performance and justify whether he deserves that extra cash.

As it turns out, he believes he’s done quite well: On his performance evaluation, submitted to Murray this March for bonus consideration and obtained by Crosscut through a public records request, he gave himself a perfect score. Weis is still waiting for a response, but under the terms of his position, those high marks make him eligible for the bonus.

Compared to the rest of the City Light leadership team, Weis is in an enviable position. Financial difficulties mean no one else in the department has been eligible for their yearly bonus for the previous two years. Weis, on the other hand, does not adhere to the same standards — he has to meet a set of performance goals drafted by the mayor.

Among some city councilmembers, there is a longstanding concern about whether the process of awarding bonuses to department heads reporting directly to the mayor is sufficiently transparent. “My concern is that the Mayor’s performance goals for a bonus should be public and result in accountability,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold in an email.

In fact, Herbold, who voted to give the job to Weis in the first place despite concerns about the bonus process, had not seen the performance standards until Crosscut provided the evaluation. After reviewing the standards, she said they seemed to reflect the performance of the department as a whole, rather than Weis’ performance as a CEO.

That may seem like a distinction without a difference,” she said, “but I question whether it’s appropriate, in the public sector, for the head of [City Light] to get a bonus because his department met its annual goals. In the public sector, bonuses should be rarely given and only, I think, for actually exceeding the specific job expectations in a way that’s measurable.”

Nevertheless, in confirming Weis, the council signed off on the agreement and its provision for a possible bonus.

Things have not always gone smoothly for Weis. Two councilmembers, Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant, voted against his confirmation amid concerns he wouldn’t be strong enough on the environment and that he was being paid too much. It came out months later that he had failed to mention to city officials that, at the time of his selection by Murray here, he had been under investigation back in Texas for fostering a toxic work environment for women. The investigation exonerated him.

Shortly after his confirmation came news that City Light’s new billing system was delayed and well over-budget. Although the problems predated Weis, Councilmember Sawant accused him and Mayor Murray of burying the problem. Last month, Crosscut reported on similar issues with City Light’s smart meter program; Sawant again pilloried him for poor communication.

City Light customers have also had their frustrations: A cold winter and estimated meter readings have meant higher bills.

Under Weis’ watch, however, the city has finally opened the new Denny Street Substation, formed the department’s first environmental advisory body, won a J.D. Power Customer Service Award and expanded enrollment in the utility discount program for low-income households.

Still, City Light more broadly faces some challenges: The department over estimated its annual revenue by between $30-$40 million each year for the last four. A number of warm winters and more efficient buildings mean people are using less energy — a good thing for boasting of City Light as the “Nation’s Greenest Utility” but something that has caused minor panic among the department’s financial heads. In an interview earlier this year, City Light Finance Director Paula Laschober told Crosscut that City Light would have to trim some fat to compensate, most likely by reducing consultant contracts.

An additional result of the financial difficulties is that no one else in department leadership — around 30 people — was eligible this year or last for their bonuses. The debt-service ratio — one of three standards that must be met for bonus eligibility — did not meet the minimum requirement.

When Weis was confirmed, Herbold raised her concerns that Weis’ bonus standards would create too much fealty to his boss, the mayor. “One of the things I understand from the elimination of bonus pay in the city is out of concern that we hire people to run city departments to exercise their independent judgment without undue influence related to remuneration and pay,” she said in the March 2016 full council meeting.

She distributed a proposal during that meeting to remove the bonus pay. It wasn’t taken up at the time and wouldn’t affect Weis’ contract retroactively, so Herbold said in an email Wednesday she doesn’t feel great urgency to push it forward now.  

The bonus concerns were echoed at the 2016 meeting by councilmembers Sawant and O’Brien, both of whom urged a broader discussion about whether bonuses should be on the table at all. “I think the council needs to start discussing bonuses at a more fundamental level which is why is it that the highest paid city employee who is already being paid $340,000, should be getting bonuses,” said Sawant.

The mayor provided 36 performance goals to Weis, housed under four umbrellas: Improve customer experience and rate predictability; increase workforce performance and safety; enhance organizational performance; and continue conservation and environmental leadership.

On a scale of one to five, Weis gave himself a five on all 36.

In an attached memo addressed to Murray, Weis praised the success of the department under his watch, pointing specifically to the new environmental advisory board, the J.D. Power Award and the expansion of the Utility Discount Program. “Seattle City Light has made remarkable strides this past year,” Weis wrote. “Under my leadership, we will continuously improve and expand upon these great achievements in 2017.”

Still, it was notable that he put fives on every category, including on the delivery of the new billing system and the smart meter program.

At the end of the memo, he reminded Murray of the details of his contract. “The legislation of the Seattle City Light Manager and CEO currently has an annual base salary of $348,510, with a range of $242,897-$388,681 and up to an 8% annual bonus based on performance.”

City Light representatives did not make Weis available for an interview. Spokesperson Farrah Paul confirmed the review was a self-evaluation. “The memo was a first-year update and reference to the bonus is responsive to his pre-employment letter of agreement,” Paul said in an email. “He has not received a bonus.”

The head of the city’s Human Resources Department, Susan Coskey, also confirmed Weis has not received a bonus at this point.

Murray has not responded to Weis’ memo — Crosscut received no records of any answer one way or the other in its public records request. When asked about the timing of the decision and when Weis would hear a response, neither Paul, Coskey nor Murray’s spokesman Benton Strong could say. City officials did not respond to requests for clarification Thursday on how the final decision about a raise will be made.

Utility heads are famously well paid and city officials have justified Weis’ contract as the price to get the right person. The bonus was part of that, a carryover from former CEO Jorge Carrasco’s contract, which Coskey classified as “consistent with the market it is in.” Carrasco was making $245,000 a year in 2015 when he decided to leave; the council had authorized a raise to as high as $364,000 for him but Murray considered a raise to $305,000 before ultimately rejecting it.

After Weis, the drop off for the next five highest paid employees is significant, according to data from the City of Seattle: Head of Seattle Public Utilities Mami Hara earns $278,000; Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, $265,000; City Light Compliance Officer Jim Baggs, $242,000; and City Light Power Management and Strategic Officer Mike Jones, $231,000.

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