On Tuesday, Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco sent some surprising news to City Council members and certain staffers: Phil Leiber, the utility’s well-regarded chief financial officer, had given notice and would leave in two weeks.
The timing seemed ominous to some City Light watchers: Leiber, the city’s second-highest-paid employee (after Carrasco), only started there in spring 2009. Several other City Light executives had also left in recent years, to top positions at the Seattle School District, Tacoma Power, and the Snohomich County PUD. Last April word broke that Carrasco, who purged the then-troubled utility’s top ranks when he took charge in 2004, was himself a candidate to head Phoenix’s power provider.
Meanwhile, City Light is completing a long-awaited strategic plan that’s supposed to bring more predictability to what have been sometimes sudden, sometimes severe, but never-ending rate increases. Increasingly restive large commercial customers urge it to institute efficiencies and cut costs before raising rates. A consultant’s study recently found plenty of inefficiencies and redundancies to fix.
“This is not an ideal time to go,” admits Leiber. “If I had my way I’d stay longer. It’s been good here. And Jorge has a really good vision for City Light.” But his reason for leaving one was an ordinary one — an irresistible offer.
He’ll become CFO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest public utility. “I can’t keep L.A. waiting. They have even more challenges facing them.” (Leiber also misses the weather down there; he came to Seattle after 15 years with the agency that manages California's electrical grid.)
As for the strategic plan, he says, “It’s ready to go. We’re going to roll it out for public comment,” perhaps by the end of the month.
“I feel I’ve gotten a lot done,” adds Lieber, though success may merely mean keeping things from getting worse. In the Enron-stoked energy crisis of the early ’00s, City Light, along with some other utilities, ran up debt and raised rates through the roof, prompting the City Council to push out Superintendent Gary Zarker and hire Carrasco. Then, in 2009 and 2010, the weak economy, plummeting natural gas prices, and a dry winter sapped the sales of excess hydropower on which City Light depends. Through that latter ordeal, the utility was able to maintain its bond ratings (AA2 from Moody’s, AA- from Standard & Poor). “I consider that a victory,” says Leiber.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is one of several business groups watching the progress of rates and reforms at City Light closely. Phil Leiber “has always shown himself to be an honest broker of information,” says Chamber vice president George Allen. “It’s not an easy job.”