TPU director finalists visit Tacoma

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The contenders to become the next director of Tacoma Public Utilities were in town this week. Three people with extensive backgrounds in the public utility sector met with government officials, labor and business leaders and members of the general public. They are in the running to replace former Director Bill Gaines, who retired from the position last December.

TPU embarked on a nationwide search for his successor. A total of 68 people applied. A search panel narrowed this to 12, and this figure was cut to three in April.

Jackie Flowers has been the general manager of Idaho Falls Power for the past 12 years. She began her career as a natural resources manager in 1993. She spent six years as public works director in Sheridan, Wyo. She earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

John Hairston is chief administrative officer of Bonneville Power Administration, an organization he joined 28 years ago. Previous roles with BPA have involved power marketing, energy efficiency and project management. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Southern University, a master’s in urban studies from Portland State University and a juris doctorate Lewis & Clark College. He also holds the certification of compliance and ethics professional from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics.

Nav Otal began her career in cancer research before joining the staff of the City of Bellevue 25 years ago as a budget and rates analyst. She was promoted to assistant budget manager then progressed through the Utilities Department from assistant and deputy director to her current role as director. She has a bachelor’s of science from the University of British Columbia and a master’s of business administration from City University in British Columbia. 

On May 14 the finalists received a guided tour of TPU assets. That night, they participated in a public meet-and-greet session at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center.

On May 15 each finalist faced the full council, spending 10 minutes discussing their background and qualifications, followed by questions from the council. Members of the TPU Board were in the audience.

“I am excited about Tacoma,” Flowers said of spending 24 hours in town. She mentioned touring Tacoma Rail facilities and noted while she has no experience with railroads, “I am confident I can get up to speed quickly.”

“I am a public utilities fan,” she remarked. “It is an awesome responsibility to provide clean water and reliable power.”

Asked about the future of Click! Network, Flowers said it should be required to be competitive. Asked if she considered the Internet to be a utility, she replied yes.

Asked how she could manage conflict, she touted her ability to gather input from many people. She mentioned her work educating the public on bond measures in Idaho Falls and Sheridan, both of which passed. “Every single person I meet I can learn something from.”

Asked about a lack of knowledge of reduced rates for seniors and low-income customers, Flowers said she would reach out to social service agencies to spread the word.

Hairston’s priorities include safety of the workforce and community, social and environmental responsibility and community involvement. He mentioned both his parents were teachers in Portland. Many of his father’s former students would strike up conversations with him, explaining what an influence he had on them. He seeks to do the same in his career. “I think the director of this utility needs to get out in the community.”

In regards to Click!, Hairston said the city made a sizable investment in it and should make the most of it. Changes in technology and consumer patterns need to be taken into account.

Asked how he would manage conflict, he drew laughter by noting he has four daughters. He said he would hear all the perspectives and put himself in the shoes of others.

Programs for the low-income can be promoted by social service agencies, Hairston said. He mentioned one summer where he went out with crews of a public utility district. They were sent to one home to shut off the power and found out the resident was a woman in her 90s. The temperature was about 100 degrees. Hairston said cutting off the elderly customer’s power would be akin to a death sentence. They contacted an agency, which paid the woman’s outstanding bill.

Otal’s management philosophy involves preserving public trust, harmonizing competing interests, investing for the long term and championing culture change. She noted she has managed the third-largest department “in a city that has experienced unprecedented growth.”

Otal considers Click! to be a critical asset. “It was very forward thinking when Click! was created.”

Language barriers can be why some customers do not utilize assistance programs. In Bellevue, senior centers and social service agencies have been utilized to promote such help.

“I look at a utility as one of a community’s greatest assets,” Otal said. “I see huge opportunity here.”

Later in the day the finalists appeared before a panel to answer questions. Panelists were selected by the council to represent a cross-section of the community. They were WestRock General Manager Steve Devlin, University Place City Manager Steve Sugg, Puyallup Tribal Councilmember Annette Bryan, Port of Tacoma CEO John Wolfe, Corey Mosesly, director of Family Stability Initiatives with United Way, Alice Phillips, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 483 and Citizens for a Healthy Bay Executive Director Melissa Malott.

Members of the public who wish to offer their input can fill out a form at bit.ly/tpufinalistfeedback.

The TPU Board is scheduled to vote on selecting a candidate on May 23. The council is scheduled to vote on the confirmation of the selection on June 12.

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