Larry Weis defended his environmental record before city council members last night.
Larry Weis defended his environmental record before city council members last night. Seattle Channel

The local chapter of the Sierra Club and the environmental justice group 350 Seattle are asking the city council to reject confirmation of the mayor's pick to run City Light, former Austin, Texas utility head Larry Weis.

Those groups—along with Council Member Kshama Sawant, who chairs the council's energy committee—are worried about Weis's environmental record, particularly his support for natural gas. While he was head of Austin's utility, Weis supported the construction of a 500 megawatt natural gas power plant. "To give you an idea of the scale of that power plant," 350 Seattle wrote in an email to supporters, "the entire City of Seattle uses an average of only 1000 [megawatts] of electricity." They're are also critical of what they see as lackluster support of solar power in Austin, citing a statement Weis made as a city task force and the city council there tried to push for more solar energy generation. “Solar is a good thing," Weis said then, according to the Austin Statesman. "The task force wants too much of a good thing.”

In a letter to Seattle City Council members, Jesse Piedfort, chair of the Washington State Sierra Club's Seattle group, wrote that Weis's record in Austin "shows troubling signs of favoring fossil fuels over renewable power, which would be at odds with Seattle's Climate Action Plan and our general commitment to reducing our carbon emissions."

In a public hearing and another grilling from city council members last night, Weis defended his environmental record.

Weis told council members that the 500 megawatt natural gas power plant in Austin was "not a new plant," but was "to replace a 900 megawatt plant" as part of a plan he says was supported by environmental groups including the Sierra Club. He said he's helped cities, including Austin, increase their use of renewable energy like solar and called himself a "strong advocate for [the view that] we have to do something about the coal agenda in this country."

"Gas generation will never be a part of a strategy for Seattle," Weis told council members. "It never will."

Mike O'Brien, one of the city council's most outspoken members on environmental issues, tamped down some of the concerns over Weis's advocacy for natural gas, arguing Seattle is already a carbon neutral utility and that won't change. Instead, he wondered whether Weis is committed to helping the entire city reach carbon neutrality. "What I'm interested in is, as leader of that entity, are you going to be able to push it to achieve even greater greenness than others might?" O'Brien asked.

Weis presented no specific plan on that front, but said he would act as a "regional leader" and "leave no stone try to look at what we can do to move the power supply portfolio to a higher level of renewable energy."

Activists and some council members are also concerned about comments Weis made about the Austin City Council on his way out, including calling them "very naive" and "vulnerable to other people’s views and to making statements and things they really haven’t thought through very much." They argue that shows he's resistant to oversight.

When the Seattle Times asked Weis about those comments, he cited the difference in political systems in the two cities. In contrast to Seattle's "strong mayor" system, in which the mayor is an executive separate from the city council, Austin has a "weak mayor" form of government, in which one city council member becomes the mayor. Weis told the Times the strong mayor system was “one of the things that appealed to me when I applied for this job."

That's a problem for environmental advocates.

"Seattle City Light was created by the people of Seattle specifically to serve the public interest and operate under democratic control and oversight, and the city council is a key part of that process," Piedfort wrote. "A Seattle City Light CEO should welcome strong public, democratic oversight of utility operations, and we are not confident Weis does so."

Julie Ryan, who chairs the City Light Review Panel and was on the selection committee that picked Weis, praised him and his experience. Ryan said she was excited to have "someone at helm who had worked in the municipal world and would comfortable with the governance structure."

Seattle City Council member Lorena González also has some concerns about Weis. She told him last night she's heard concerns from members of Austin's Latino advocacy community—"these are people who I trust in Austin"—that Weis had been hard to work with on an effort to close down a power plant in a predominantly Latino neighborhood there.

Advocates were "very pleased you made the right decision [to shut down the plant]," but said "it took a lot of advocacy and pushing from their perspective to get you to make the right decision," González told Weis. Weis defended his work, saying that project to close the plant had begun—but faltered—before he got to Austin and that he helped finish it. "My commitment was to personally meet with them whenever they called," Weis said of advocates, adding later, "I can only say I worked very, very hard to make it happen."

Sawant remains skeptical and looks likely to vote against his nomination. She says her office spoke to environmental activists from three groups in Austin who expressed concerns about Weis. Along with environmental issues, Sawant is unconvinced of Weis's commitment to municipal broadband, on which she wants to see City Light take a leadership role. She asked Weis about that at a meeting earlier this month and told him last night "there wasn't really a forcefulness in terms of where you'd like to see it. I didn't see any motivation toward municipal broadband."

Then there's the question of money. Mayor Ed Murray has offered Weis a salary of $340,000. That's higher than the previous City Light CEO and would be the highest of any city executive, according to Sawant's office. The mayor's office has defended that figure as a way of helping the city compete with private utility companies for the best talent. Sawant isn't buying it. Pointing to a study that cast doubt on whether higher CEO pay results in better performance, she remained opposed to that salary last night. Sawant's committee is likely to vote later this month on whether to send Weis's nomination to the full council.