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City’s highest-paid employee won’t be getting that bonus

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

Seattle City Light CEO Larry Weis won’t be getting his bonus this year. The reason, according to the mayor’s office, is not because of any real question about whether he’s been doing a good job, but because officials never technically agreed on how to evaluate his performance.

The news about Weis and the explanation came in a letter Thursday from the mayor’s office to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who earlier this month questioned the constitutionality of the city’s process for determining whether Weis, who is also the utility’s general manager, deserved the pay bump.

Her inquiries followed a Crosscut report that Weis had given himself perfect marks on all 36 categories of a performance review, which Crosscut obtained through a public records disclosure of documents related to any request for a bonus. Weis is the highest paid city employee, at $340,000 a year, and, per his contract, the city’s only department head eligible for pay incentive.

Reception of the extra money — as much as 8 percent of his salary or nearly $30,000 — is dependent on a yearly performance review. But the letter from the mayor’s office was the first indication that a bonus wouldn’t be forthcoming. Weis, in fact, had pointed to the council legislation authorizing a bonus when he turned in his self-evaluation.

Weis was confirmed in March 2016 and the performance review obtained by Crosscut was submitted in March of this year.

Still, Fred Podesta, the city’s director of operations for Finance and Administrative Services, says in the letter that the review was not, in fact, intended to be his bonus evaluation. The mayor’s office and Weis, wrote Podesta, never actually agreed on criteria for issuing his incentive money, thereby missing the deadline for his first year in office. So, while Weis did rate himself perfectly on a performance review, “It has never been the expectation of the Mayor’s Office that any incentive pay for 2016 would be determined by that report. General Manager/CEO Weis’ self-evaluation does however provide a helpful basis as we work to finalize the criteria for 2017.”

Podesta’s letter offers no explanation for why the criteria were never finalized. Weis was not immediately available to comment on  Thursday evening.

The absence of a bonus was good news to Herbold, who believed that if the evaluation released by Crosscut had in fact been used in determining Weis’ bonus, it could have gotten the city in trouble under the state constitution. Washington law is strict on giving extra compensation to public employees, especially after they have agreed to a salary. The state constitution has explicit provisions against “the gift of public funds” and against giving extra compensation to a public employee after work has already been completed.

Performance bonuses are allowed. But according to a 1995 opinion from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office that Herbold cites in her letter to the mayor’s office, the bonuses cannot be given for simply meeting the requirements of the job, as that could be seen as either an increase in salary or a public gift.

“To ensure that employee incentive programs are consistent with these constitutional restrictions,” reads the opinion, “incentives and awards should be provided only for meeting established performance standards or goals that exceed normal employment requirements.”

Herbold questioned whether the performance evaluation obtained by Crosscut showed that. “I do not believe that the Department’s performance can be a proxy for how an individual exceeds the normal requirements for that individual,” she wrote in a letter to the mayor’s office earlier this month. “I also question how an individual measures his or her own performance meets the legal standard advised by the Washington AGO for a measure of performance that is not a matter of individual judgment.”

In her letter, Herbold had asked the mayor’s office for several things: “Can you please provide the previously established expectations for performance pay, how these expectations exceed the normal performance requirements, and how these expectations are measured in a way that is clear and definitive and not a matter of judgment?”

Podesta says Weis’ review was typical of other department heads and pledged the mayor’s office will nail down the details for the coming year.

In response to Podesta’s letter, Councilmember Herbold said in a text message that she’s “relieved to learn that a bonus won’t be given to CEO Weis’ based upon his self-evaluation and glad to have confirmation that the Executive doesn’t intend to grant a bonus this year, given that no performance standards were established consistent with the Attorney General’s Office’s guidance.”

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