Chelan County PUD lands a big fish

WENATCHEE — Steve Wright, the recently retired head of the Bonneville Power Administration, has accepted the job as general manager of the Chelan County PUD. He’ll start work Sept. 3.

Wright, 55, has been a key figure and highest-profile face of Pacific Northwest federal hydropower, transmission, and environmental mitigation and tribal relations for the Columbia River’s federal dams since accepting the BPA’s top job 2000. He retired in late January.

PUD commissioners Wednesday agreed to offer Wright the post. He confirmed by phone late Wednesday that he’d take the job.

“This will sound a bit strange, but I have an almost mystical connection to the Columbia River,” Wright said. “I’ve spent my whole career working on … issues around the Columbia. I love the Columbia and what it does for the people of this region. The idea of being engaged again on Columbia River issues was incredibly appealing.”

Wright will replace current General Manager John Janney who resigned earlier this year to spend more time with his family and church. Janney plans to remain on the job until Sept. 15.

The job offer includes an annual salary of $295,000 — a big leap from the approximately $180,000 he earned annually at the BPA — and a five-year contract that includes $40,000 in moving expenses, 45 days of vacation annually and severance pay if he is fired without cause.

Wright was not present when commissioners made their announcement, but he was in town and had already met with local officials about the job.

He said he and his family have already visited the area and enjoy its natural beauty and sunshine. He praised the utility that he will soon lead.

“I’ve done a substantial amount of due diligence. My conclusion is this is a very well-run utility,” he said. “John Janney and, I think, Rich Riazzi before him have done a really marvelous job of putting this utility in a good position. This is not a turnaround situation, which is appealing. It is very much a job in which there is an opportunity to do a lot of good things.”

Wright’s hiring concludes a months-long process and a long series of closed-door interviews for PUD commissioners.

“None of us had an inkling that he was interested in the job,” Commissioner President Carnan Bergren said of board members’ surprise when they learned Wright had applied.

He was one of three finalists for the PUD’s top spot and the only external candidate.

Commissioners said that the other two candidates, Gregg Carrington and Kirk Hudson, both longtime PUD engineers and directors, were solid candidates who would have been hard to pass over for anyone other than Wright.

Commissioners pointed to Wright’s humility, leadership and exemplary track record in public power as reasons for their choice. They also said that Wright, during his interview, showed that he was already thinking about issues that will affect the Chelan PUD, including the looming talks with Canada over the Columbia River Treaty.

Wright said this morning that he was eager for a change after 12 years at the top spot in Bonneville, making him the agency’s second-longest serving administrator.

“When I left Bonneville, I always knew I was going to go back to work,” he said. “I tried some things. I’ve worked on writing a book. I’ve done some consulting work. I found I didn’t enjoy them as much as I did leading … I’m good at things I really care about. I was not the class valedictorian. I was not the one voted most likely to succeed. What happened in my career was I found work that I just really, really enjoyed doing.”

He plans to continue the open-door management style of both Janney and Riazzi, despite some criticism that during his job at Bonneville he excluded from discussions those who disagreed with him.

“I’m very much a believer that the primary role as the general manager here is to identify the key issues for the community. We are stewards of the assets, not the owners of the assets on behalf of the people of Chelan County. The job is to sift through the these mounds of information and regulatory treatment and try to figure out the key public policy choices and tee those up for the community … I think it’s a very similar to the philosophy of John and Rich, as I know it.”

He added, “You can look at some of the issues I resolved during my tenure at Bonneville, including what had been some stormy relationships with fisheries that turned into very positive relationships … There is a body of evidence in my work that would suggest that I’m open to finding ways to solve problems with people we are in conflict with.”

As administrator of the Portland-based BPA, Wright oversaw a huge agency with a budget many times the size of all of North Central Washington’s PUDs combined. Bonneville markets the power produced by 31 federal dams and a nuclear plant over miles of transmission lines from California north to Canada. Neither the Chelan nor Douglas PUDs rely on BPA power.

Wright has been at the epicenter of the federal power talks involving passionate private and environmental interests, large energy users, like Alcoa, and a key agreement that resulted in Northwest tribes dropping lawsuits against the federal government for fisheries and habitat lost to dam construction.

He started at the agency in an entry-level job in 1981 and became its intermediate leader in 2000 before being permanently appointed in 2002.

His long administration has been shadowed recently by a complaint by the BPA’s own human resources employees that the agency incorrectly passed up veterans for BPA posts. The employees later said they were retaliated against for making the complaint.

The hiring practices in question are reported to have begun while Wright was still at the agency. Current administrator Bill Drummond has been placed on administrative leave over the alleged practices.

Wright said he’s eager to learn more about the dispute, but doesn’t recall it being brought to his attention while he was on the job.

“It’s not that there were no mistakes made at Bonneville during my tenure there,” he said. “… On the retaliation issue, to the extent there is one … that appears to have occurred outside my watch.”

PUD commissioners said they were aware of the controversy before making Wright the offer.

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