Kshama Sawant and other members of the City Council's Energy Committee grilled Seattle City Light general manager and CEO Jorge Carrasco on Tuesday about a string of recent high-profile controversies involving the utility and his leadership.
Much of the committee's review centered on a contract City Light had with Brand.com. As part of a broader City Light marketing effort, Brand.com worked to improve Internet search results tied to the utility and, specifically, Carrasco's name. Sawant, the Energy Committee chair, led the questioning, which also touched on Carrasco's request for a pay raise, employee morale at City Light and a copper theft that occurred after the CEO authorized a pair of con men to access a scrap metal facility.
Sawant billed the review as a way to avoid similar problems in the future.
"How can we, going forward, avoid wasteful use of resources?" she asked as the meeting got started.
As he parried questions from Sawant and other councilmembers, Carrasco tried to highlight the improvements that have taken place on his watch. He pointed out that when he joined City Light about a decade ago, the utility was emerging from an energy crisis, saddled with heavy debt and a battered credit rating. There were also problems with aging infrastructure, risk management and customer service.
Carrasco rattled off facts and figures in an attempt to demonstrate how some of those issues had improved during his tenure.
"Through the support of mayors and councils over the last 10-and-a-half years we've been able to create a very different utility today," he said.
Councilmember Sally Clark said she was glad to see the Brand.com controversy discussed, but she also pointed out that the $17,500 contract was small in terms of the utility's total budget: It takes about $7 million in spending cuts to keep rates from rising 1 percent.
"It's important and we watch it," she said, of the controversy. "But it doesn't move the needle."
Later in the meeting, Sawant pushed back on Clark's remark about the Brand.com expenses being relatively minor.
"I would not look at it like that," Sawant said. "I would look at as a sign of how the council and the elected government does its business overall."
When council members shifted the discussion to employee morale, Carrasco said that the utility would work with City Council staff to carry out an employee survey in 2015. City Light last conducted such a survey in 2007. It indicated that employee confidence in the utility's leadership was lacking in some respects.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell said that City Light was not the only city department with employee morale challenges and mentioned the police department as another example. He said that he hoped the city would take advantage of some of the "inspirational tools" that were available to address the problem. Harrell also shared some personal views on morale.
"Morale is a choice," he said. "I choose to have a positive morale, and I tell employees that there are a lot of people that do not have jobs, they do not even have homes."
Sawant offered a slightly different perspective.
"There's also extensive data to suggest that tangible issues at the workplace have a huge impact on employee morale," she said.
During the meeting's public comment period, a high voltage worker, Joe Spallino, raised concerns about City Light's safety program. He said that in recent years field safety coordinators, who act as liaisons between field workers, management and safety staff, have begun to lack high voltage expertise.
Carrasco said the utility would follow up to learn more about those concerns, and also noted that the rate of safety incidents has declined in recent years.
Sawant asked the City Light boss late in the meeting about reports that workers were reluctant to speak up about their suspicions of the copper thieves because they feared being viewed as insubordinate or disrespectful.
Carrasco said: "They should never assume that anyone of us in the chain of command, including myself, are not capable of making an error."