Power Shift

Judging from the desperate phone call Mayor Nickels's office placed to Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck's office last week, Mayor Nickels' high-powered P.R. campaign hyping Seattle City Light Superintendent Gary Zarker isn't going well. Prepackaged testimonies and pro-Zarker spin cultivated by high-powered lobbyists like Don Stark apparently can't gloss over serious questions about Zarker's leadership. (A recent audit of Seattle City Light explicitly blames senior management for the agency's $1.7 billion debt and hapless showing during the 2000 energy crisis.)

Now, with the five votes needed to reconfirm Zarker in doubt (Jim Compton, Nick Licata, and Judy Nicastro look like "No" votes), Nickels is forsaking his fancy spin campaign and resorting to old-fashioned arm-twisting. In the call to Steinbrueck last week, Nickels' folks reportedly played their only real hand: "What can we give you to get your vote on Zarker?" they asked Steinbrueck's staff. Steinbrueck didn't return Nickels' call. ("I'm not looking to the executive to do anything more," Steinbrueck laughed, referring me to the "big pile of pro-Zarker letters [we've] received instigated by the mayor's office.")

If I were Council President Steinbrueck, I would have told Nickels' folks that getting a "Yes" vote on Zarker meant satisfactorily answering a slew of questions raised by the independent auditor, Vantage Consulting, Inc.

Among them:

Why did Zarker replace utility experts in top management with people who didn't have experience?

What's the math on the Stateline Wind power contract? The auditors argue the "cost savings" are based on inflated numbers. Are they? They also say the contract is a money loser--it forces Seattle City Light to buy energy at significantly higher rates than City Light simultaneously sells at. Why are we in this contract, especially when the utility is supposed to profit on surplus-energy sales?

With a 62 percent hydro shortage, is City Light really going to have the system-wide 200 megawatt excess it's counting on selling to help pay off debt?

The Bonneville Power Administration, from whom City Light gets the majority of its power, may raise rates by 15 percent. Why does City Light's budget forecast show Bonneville costs remaining flat or declining?

Why do "contributions"--money that private companies pay to City Light for infrastructure upgrades--spike in 2002? Is that increased City Light revenue real?

Why, in an era of greatly increased productivity, has City Light maintained such high staffing in comparison to similar utilities?

After assessing the answers to these questions, I would post another, larger query. While there may be specific responses and explanations for each individual gaffe, you have to wonder why there were so many gaffes in the first place. "When you put the whole thing together," says auditor Walt Drabinski, "they really haven't done a good job there. When you look at all the individual elements, you have to step back and ask, 'What's the larger story?'"