Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant grilled City Light director Jorge Carrasco at this morning's energy committee meeting, where Carrasco submitted to questions about the utility's recent hiring of brand.com, an online reputation-boosting firm; a $40,000 copper theft that took place, in part, because Carrasco gave the thieves access to a City light scrap yard; Carrasco's request (rejected by Mayor Ed Murray) for a raise of up to $125,000 (Carrasco is already the highest-paid employee at the city); and reports of low morale among City Light employees.
(We previewed the interrogation in Fizz this morning).
The committee used up a large chunk of the hour it set aside quibbling over City Light's contract with Brand.com, the online reputation firm, which used $17,500 in ratepayer-funded utility dollars to try to push positive fake "news" stories about Carrasco and the agency to the top of Google results.
(It didn't work, in part because the Brand.com-generated stories were largely gibberish; currently, seven of the top 10 Google results for Carrasco's name could be construed as "negative" news stories, as could all 10 of the top Google News hits.)
Was it in the interest of ratepayers, Sawant wanted to know, for City Light to spend ratepayer money (even such a relatively paltry amount; as Sally Clark pointed out, it would take $7 million to shave even one percentage point off the upcoming 4.4 percent rate increase) on a campaign to boost the image of the utility's superintendent—especially given that, as a public utility, City Light has no competition from other utilities?
"I don’t see the average ratepayer Googling your name in an effort to find out whether they are being served well or not," Sawant said. "Do you have the concern that this may have had an appearance of you using ratepayer resources [irresponsibly], particularly at the time when you were lobbying the government for a raise? How do you feel about that?"
"I feel it was a mistake," Carrasco said, "and I wouldn't do it again." However, he said, "this was not about improving my reputation."
But Sawant wasn't done inquiring about City Light's PR strategy. Pointing to another more expensive effort to promote City Light's energy efficiency programs, Sawant noted that the $250,000 that program cost could have paid for 800 new families to enroll in City Light's energy assistance programs.
"Just because we're public doesn't mean we don't have an obligation to educate and inform our customers," Carrasco said, adding that "to recruit the talent this organization needs to operate, we need to find ways to be competitive with public and private utilities, and pay is not going to be one of them. ... The opportunity for us to attract talent ... is to tell [people] about the exciting work that we're doing.""Obviously, I never authorized 40,000 pounds of copper to be given to anybody, but I’m sure that the people involved presented a very compelling story."
Then, with much of their time elapsed, the committee turned to the copper theft and employee morale, which a 2007 survey—a survey Carrasco argued is now outdated—found to be extremely low. "There's a really striking divergence between what the executive feels is going on and what most employees feel is going on," Sawant said. Carrasco responded that turnover at City Light has declined dramatically since he took over in 2004, as has the number of days it takes to fill a City Light position—from 184 in 2004 to 25 today.
As for the copper theft: Carrasco said he can understand why employees who were asked to load up the copper wire wouldn't contact him directly to make sure he had authorized the handover. (Sawant said she had heard that the scrap yard workers who gave the copper away worried they would be reprimanded for being insubordinate if they said anything.)
"I think it's human nature, or normal, that if someone is telling you that someone in a senior position authorized [the copper handover], you might be inclined to believe it."
"I'm inclined to conclude that these people manipulated the situation to imply that" he had authorized the thieves, who were posing as Native Americans from Oklahoma seeking copper for disadvantaged children to use for jewelry, Carrasco said.
"Obviously, I never authorized 40,000 pounds of copper to be given to anybody, but I’m sure that the people involved presented a very compelling story."
Finally, Sawant touched briefly on the issue of Carrasco's salary (currently, he makes around $250,000 a year, but was poised to make as much as $375,000 until Murray scuttled the controversial raise proposal.)
Wielding a letter from a City Light customer (the third or fourth of several such props, including a news story from the Seattle Times) who said he was no longer sure his contributions to the utility's environmental efforts were being spent properly, Sawant argued that higher utility CEO pay puts upward pressure on the entire U.S. utility system, pushing up pay across the board and creating a neverending cascade of higher and higher CEO pay.
Carrasco, as he has pointed out, could make more money in the private sector. He's been at City Light for more than 10 years—a long time for any department director. We'll be watching to see if he makes it through a full Murray term, or if he decides he's had it with the pay standoff and greater accountability that comes with being a public utility chief.