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CITY LIGHT'S STOLEN INDEPENDENCE
By Bob Hegamin AN OPINION February 1, 2001
1902 -- Seattle agreed to develop an electric "company" within a City department.
1905 -- As part of the Water Department, the "company" began to generate power.
1910 -- The City Council turned the "company" into the independent Department of Lighting.
1951 -- The Department of Lighting became a municipal electric monopoly after "buying out" other power companies operating within the City.
1968 -- The Department of Lighting was now generically being called City Light.
June 13, 1997: From the Public Employees for Responsible Government (P.E.R.G.):
"As late as 1972, City Light was truly owned by the people of Seattle, designated an independent municipal electric utility under the City Charter. Our State government also stressed this uniqueness in 1974 when on December 17, the Seattle Times printed the article captioned "City faces suit over delinquent electric bills." In part, it reported that,
" The state attorney general's office has rejected a proposal to settle an old City Light debt, and has renewed threats to sue the City, which it says is more than $5 million behind in paying its electric bills State law requires departments to be reimbursed at "true and fair value" for services provided to the general government ."It's a little unusual to have the state coming in and representing a city department in a suit against the general government," (City Councilmember) Hill said."
"On January 1, 1979 an ordinance established the Department of City Light and removed reference of the utility from the City Charter. Now, eighteen years later and by ordinance, City Light is headed for oblivion. Its demise will ring the death knell of the professional and technical integrity that built the utility over the past one hundred years, and take its accountability with it .City Light is the choicest plum in Seattle's political spoils system. With an annual budget exceeding $525 million, it is a "pot of gold" into which the ultimate insiders have been given the best jobs.
"The utility is operated by a Superintendent and four Deputy Superintendents. These jobs used to be filled by individuals with technical and professional expertise. None of the current top managers has any hands-on operations or engineering experience in the electrical power field. They are .."
What City Light's administrators did in 1974 was to assert their authority as executives of the independent municipal utility. From 1974 on, it became the obsession of Seattle's mayors and members of the City Council to strip that independence from City Light. To start the process, the then-Mayor replaced most of City Light's top management, composed of engineers and technicians with non-engineers, then began politicizing and micromanaging the utility. By 1978, City Hall had considered selling City Light, thereby eliminating a troublesome department while providing a temporary financial windfall for the City. It didn't happen.
By 1994, entrenched bureaucrats - graduates of the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget - were totally in charge of City Light as its top administrators. Which brings us to the present.
As incredulous as it may seem, from the mid-seventies to the present, Seattle's elected officials are still trying to determine the mission of the utility. Because of that uncertainty, it is one reason why City Light's power generation did not grow with its increasing load; why it remains a "cash cow" for the City; why Seattle's owner/shareholders cannot now buy their own municipally generated electric power without having it diluted with additional expensive power; why "conservation" is being promoted as the City's only response to the current power crisis; why the current Mayor and City Council do not have the will or commitment to develop an electrical energy policy for City Light's ratepayers. Seattle can and certainly must do better.
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