Larry Weis, a native Pacific Northwestern-er and former head of Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, will be the next head of Seattle City Light. Despite some skepticism on commitment to the city's goals around the environment and equity, the Seattle City Council gave him the OK with a 7-2 vote Monday. Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant voted no.
The appointment of Weis was no slam dunk. “Council doesn’t rubber stamp these decisions,” said Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell Monday, with some amount of pride. Indeed, Weis was deeply vetted and questioned in private interviews with council members, in public hearings and, most pointedly, in Council member Sawant’s Energy committee.
While any head of a department is subject to scrutiny by the Council before being hired, Weis was perhaps most examined in recent history, thanks to a desire from the diverse and climate-focused council to be, if you will, bold. With the exception of perhaps Council member Tim Burgess, who said he was “delighted” to approve Weis, calls for the nominee to be something more than what they saw in interviews came from every direction.
“My dream and hope for this position,” said Council member O’Brien, was not only to hire someone with the ability to manage Seattle City Light’s massive, hydro-electric infrastructure, “but also someone who had the ability to be a champion on race and social justice issues and the climate…. What I haven’t seen is a clearly articulated position for how his leadership will take Seattle City Light to a new level of environmental sustainability.”
Even those who voted in favor of him echoed that point. “I hope you will listen to my colleague Council member O’Brien,” said Council member Sally Bagshaw, saying she was “going to ask [Weis] to be a leader.”
A few main concerns bubbled to the surface over the last weeks. First, that Weis had not been well engaged in the Austin community and, likewise, had not done enough to reach out to Austin’s minority community. In past Council committee meetings, this had been a major point of concern.
Second, in a letter, he’d called the Austin City Council “naïve” – not a great way to win over Seattle’s City Council.
On the environment, Weis discouraged the Austin City Council from deploying as many solar panels as they’d intended at one point, cautioning using “too much of a good thing.” And as Sawant mentioned, there was some question of his approving a massive natural gas plant.
Still, Weis was credited with raising Austin’s clean energy portfolio from 5 percent to 35 percent, on pace to hit 55 percent by 2018. He’s also promised to hire a deputy specifically to advise him on environmental practices. And throughout the nomination process, he has promised to follow the lead of Seattle's elected officials. The combination of assurances was enough to get him a solid majority and, in most places, would almost certainly rubber stamp him as green.
When asked if the opposition of local environmental groups was fair, he responded, “It’s not unfair,” crediting the city for the high bar it sets.
It also helped that the rank and file union workers in Seattle City Light favor his appointment.
With his hiring, Weis becomes the highest paid city employee at $340,000 a year. In the face of scorn at that number – especially from Council member Sawant -- the mayor’s office has justified the payroll as being competitive with the heads of other major public utility departments. In the weeks ahead, there will almost certainly be discussion of whether Mr. Weis should be allowed to accept bonus pay -- incentives for meeting certain goals. At first blush, opposition to bonus pay from the Council's more leftist members will be fierce.
Weis, in the coming days and weeks, said he will make the rounds to the department's electricians and laborers -- a sort of listening tour. And starting tomorrow, he takes the reins of a billion dollar department.