PUD candidate questions timing, transparency in naming of CEO
Last updated 9/20/2018 at Noon
The Snohomish County Public Utility District is caught in the middle of a drama not unlike Democrats’ attempt to delay confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh until after the November general election.
Rebecca Wolfe, an Edmonds resident and candidate for the Snohomish County PUD Commission, District 2, on Tuesday expressed concern about the utility’s naming of a new executive in a move she said lacked transparency and should have been voted on after Nov. 6.
Two of three commissioner seats are up for grabs.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District Board of Commissioners on Tuesday introduced a resolution to name John Haarlow as the new chief executive officer/general manager at a base salary of $390,244 a year.
The appointment requires final approval at the board’s meeting Oct. 1. Haarlow, currently a PUD assistant general manager, is expected to have an effective starting date of Oct. 8. If approved, he would replace Craig Collar, who retired in June, and current interim CEO Anne Spangler.
Haarlow was picked over three other candidates, whose names were not released to the public.
“What troubled me greatly today was the failure of the current commissioners to allow the public an opportunity to hear about the qualifications, goals, ideals and vision of each of the four finalists,” said Wolfe, who faces David Chan in November’s general election for a six-year term.
Both defeated newcomers Maggie Mae and Kaili Chickering in the August primary, as well as incumbent commission President Kathy Vaughn, who began her first term as a commissioner in 1995 and was last re-elected to the commission in November 2012 for her fourth term.
Wolfe received 30.83 percent of the vote, while Chan received 28.16 percent, Vaughn 27.75 percent, Mae 8.61 percent and Chickering 3.98 percent.
The PUD is broken into three districts. In addition to Vaughn, the leadership includes Sid Logan in District 1 appointed in March 2017 after the resignation of Dave Aldrich and who is moving on to the general election for a new two-year unexpired term and Tanya (Toni) Olson in District 3, who is not up for election this year.
Wolfe attended the PUD meeting on Tuesday when Haarlow was selected.
“Even if they had been referenced, for confidentiality, as candidates A, B, C, and D, we could have been included in the weighing of the information about each one and allowed to provide our input,” she said.
“All deliberations were done in secret, executive sessions over several days. I am aware that several privileged people were able to meet with PUD staff and/or commissioners very recently, but the voters were excluded from the process. Only a few attendees who objected to the process on Tuesday were allowed to speak.”
Spokesman Neil Neroutsos said an executive session Sept. 4 was used to review qualifications of the candidates, which is allowed under the Open Meetings Act. After the executive session, in a subsequent public session, each commissioner expressed what they were looking for in a general manager and announced their top candidate, he added.
“Any interested member of the public and PUD staff was welcome to attend this public meeting,” Neroutsos said. “There were no additional ‘privileged’ people in the executive session it was the PUD Commission, the clerk of the board and the recruiter on contract.”
Neroutsos said that the PUD has followed the practice of not publicly naming CEO/general manager candidates in the past.
“It protects the confidentiality of candidates who may be currently working in other roles or for other organizations,” he said. “It helps the negotiation process as a job offer is made. Moreover, it’s advantageous if negotiations with a top finalist fail and a secondary candidate is then selected.”
Neroutsos said the three current commissioners determined it needed to “fill this critical position” rather than wait nearly nine months to begin the process.
“By waiting it would have risked potentially losing a pool of attractive candidates,” he said.
Commissioners retained a recruiting firm, Colorado-based Mycoff, Fry and Prouse, that conducted a four-month national search that identified 46 applicants.
“The current PUD board has decades of collective experience in setting policy for the utility and hiring general managers,” Neroutsos said.
John Haarlow background
Haarlow joined the PUD in February 2017 as Assistant General Manager of Distribution and Engineering Services, and has nearly 30 years of experience in the electric utility industry.
In that role, he was responsible for construction, engineering, operations and maintenance of the utility’s transmission, substation and distribution assets. He also oversaw fleet, real estate and environmental functions.
“In naming John Haarlow to lead the PUD as general manager, we’re reinforcing our commitment to delivering clean, carbon-free power that’s safely and responsibly generated at the lowest possible cost,” Vaughn said.
“As the energy landscape and our customers’ needs change, we’re very pleased to have selected a candidate with such an extensive background in the electric utility industry.”
“Protecting status quo”
Wolfe said she had had no direct, personal experience with Haarlow, so her reaction to his selection by the board of commissioners is based only on comments from several people who have worked with him in the past.
“But it was unfortunate that the commissioners pitted the SnoPUD candidates against the employees and strongly suggested that if the ‘status quo’ is not perpetuated, then the board will be ‘dysfunctional’ a bizarre notion.
“(Commissioner) Olson projected the idea that if the board were challenged on their closed process or their chosen general manager, dissenters would be doing harm to the employees and to the reputation of the PUD. She gave the strong impression that we, the candidates, do not appreciate the employees.
“In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I have always worked for positive work conditions for employees. Creating division between the employees assembled Tuesday and the disgruntled audience was an unnecessary and disturbing part of the meeting.
"Groupthink reigns in the Snohomish PUD at least among those in favor there. Employees who are unhappy were not invited to the event Tuesday.”
Snohomish County PUD is the second largest publicly owned utility in Washington and the 12th largest in the country. It serves more than 348,000 electric customers and about 20,000 water customers. Its service territory covers over 2,200 square miles, including all of Snohomish County and Camano Island.
Those who want to comment before Oct. 1 can email firstname.lastname@example.org.