PUD board candidates question ‘secrecy’ in CEO hiring process

The board, with two seats up for grabs, defends its plan to hire a CEO before the November election.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County PUD appears to be getting close to hiring a new leader, but the public utility board isn’t naming names.

The board could reveal who that is and the details of a proposed contract with a salary range of $350,000 to $450,000 when it meets Tuesday.

For now, that mystery person is only known as “Candidate D.”

Because of procedural rules, the commission can’t actually offer the candidate a job at that meeting. However, the board could introduce a resolution to make a job offer. The public would then have two weeks to comment on the choice. A new chief executive could be announced Oct. 1.

The CEO/general manager position became available after Craig Collar announced plans in mid-April to retire this fall. He’d been CEO for three years. In May, the commission launched a nationwide search for a successor.

Collar’s retirement is effective Oct. 1, but he used his accrued time off and sick leave to make his last day in office June 29, PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

The search yielded 46 applications. That was whittled to 20 by Colorado-based Mycoff, Fry & Prouse, a utility recruiting firm hired to help fill the job.

The four finalists weren’t named at a special public meeting Sept. 7, but were referred to as candidates “A, B, C and D.”

After a closed-door session to discuss the applicants’ qualifications, commissioners Kathy Vaughn, Tanya “Toni” Olson and Sid Logan reconvened the public meeting.

Each commissioner then named candidate “D” as their top choice. The board then approved a motion authorizing board president Vaughn to negotiate a proposed contract with the candidate, for consideration at a future meeting.

The move to hire a CEO/GM not long before November’s general election has raised eyebrows.

Vaughn’s fourth, six-year term as PUD District 2 commissioner is up at the end of this year. Vaughn was defeated in the primary by challengers Rebecca Wolfe and David Chan.

Logan, who was appointed, faces challenger Mary Rollins in November. They’ll vie to complete the final two years of a six-year term.

District 3 Commissioner Olson is in the second year of a six-year term.

At the very least, one new commissioner will be seated in January — possibly two, depending on the election.

Wolfe said she is concerned about the “secrecy” and timing of the proceedings.

“What’s the rush?” Wolfe said. “It is unseemly and very telling that the current board is racing to finalize their decision prior to the Nov. 6 election.”

“There is no need for this process to happen so quickly. It must be blocked and the decision should not be made until the new board is sworn in.”

However, Wolfe said she had not spoken to the board about her concerns, because she didn’t “trust their answers,” saying “it would be best for others to ask that question.”

Chan could not be reached for comment.

PUD spokesman Neroutsos said the hiring process started before the August primary. He said PUD practice is to keep candidates’ names confidential.

“This is the way we’ve typically conducted the last several GM searches … without naming the finalists,” Neroutsos said.

He said that information would be exempt from the Washington Public Records Act.

The PUD is the 12th largest publicly owned electric utility in the United States. It serves about 349,000 electric customers and 20,300 water customers across a service area that includes Snohomish County and Camano Island. In 2016, it had $640 million in operating revenues.

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, an independent nonprofit, said the PUD board did the right thing by voting for the candidates in public, but they should have named the final four.

“To me, it’s too much secrecy,” Nixon said. “How can the public know if they’re making a good choice if the public doesn’t know who the candidates are? Most agencies will announce the finalists, and give the public an opportunity to meet the candidates.”

In 2015, the board chose Collar to succeed Steve Klein. Collar’s starting salary was $329,600. Klein, his predecessor, was paid $366,826 a year.

Logan said the process is one the board has used in the past, and it’s intended to protect the confidentiality of applicants.

“Once you decide you want somebody there’s a process of negotiations. That negotiation may fail and you have to go on to the next person,” Logan said.

Rollins, his challenger, said the hiring steps should have been halted “once the primary happened and it was clear that Kathy Vaughn wouldn’t be continuing forward.”

“If I were in her position I would have said, ‘Let’s put this on hold, to be prudent,’” Rollins said. “They have an interim director.”

The board appointed PUD General Counsel Anne Spangler as acting interim CEO this summer.

Olson said “the seated commissioners have over 50 years in the business. The board determined that if we waited until January, we risked losing some of the candidates who applied.”

Vaughn could not be reached for comment.

The PUD next meets 9 a.m. Tuesday, at 2320 California St. in Everett.

To view the agenda go to: bit.ly/2CVPaYs.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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