By The Herald Editorial Board
On a long primary ballot, falling after U.S. congressional and state legislative races, Snohomish County voters will find a consequential race that deserves more than cursory thought, and not just because the particular position has some say in making sure your lights come on when you flip a switch and in the rates you pay for electricity.
The Snohomish Public Utility District’s three-member board of commissioners represents the public — ratepayers in particular — as the utility plays its part in addressing climate change and the ongoing transition to efficient and reliable delivery of electricity, increasingly from carbon-neutral sources, and serving a growing need for clean electricity serving homes and transporation.
Snohomish PUD serves about 360,000 customers in a service territory of more than 2,200 square miles.
This year’s ballot includes the race for the public utility commission’s District 3, which encompasses the southern half of the county, east from I-5 and I-405, and includes parts of Lake Stevens and the communities of Snohomish, Maltby, Monroe, Sultan and Index.
The district is currently represented by Tanya “Toni” Olson, who is running for a fourth six-year term on the board, which followed 22 years as a PUD employee in the utility’s front office.
Olson has two challengers.
Jordan Sears has served on the Gold Bar City Council, including terms as mayor pro tem, since 2019. Sears, 22, is among the youngest elected officials in the county. Sears, a Sultan High School graduate, has an associate’s degree from Everett Community College, with a focus on business and economics. Sears said that should he win he intends to continue on the city council but would not run for re-election.
Ken Maertens, a resident of 30 years in the county, living at times in Monroe, Sultan, Gold Bar and Snohomish, has an extensive resume of mechanical and electronics engineering work in defense and medical fields, and served in the U.S. Navy aboard a submarine as a electronics technician and reactor operator.
The two candidates with the most votes in the Aug. 2 primary will face each other in the Nov. 8 general election.
During a recent interview with the editorial board, the three candidates shared their opinions regarding the roll-out of the PUD’s advanced “smart” meters to customers; the utility’s work in energy research and development of energy projects, such as its Arlington micro-grid and large-scale battery storage; the transition to carbon-neutral electricity sources; the debate regarding the potential removal of the four Lower Snake River dams as a potential solution to aiding the recovery of salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers; and the leadership and representation of the PUD board.
The issue of the PUD’s roll-out of advanced meters — which allow electrical use to be measured remotely but also allow quicker reporting of outages and for customers to more closely monitor their own consumption — showed some distinctions among the three candidates.
Olson said she’s fully supportive of the PUD program and believes it will provide benefits for the utility and its customers. Now expected to begin installation in customer homes and businesses in 2023, the roll-out has lagged behind the schedules of other utilities. Olson said she preferred the PUD take its time, allowing it to avoid the costs and mistakes that others might make with a new technology.
Maertens, from his observance of meetings, is concerned for the project’s completion. At a recent meeting, he said, the engineering team admitted problems with software. Maertens said he wants more information on budget and schedule for the project and how it will address problems with implementation. “I’m seeing red flags and didn’t hear many comments from commissioners,” he said.
Sears, however, said he’d prefer the PUD to take a bolder approach — not just on the meters but on other energy projects — noting that Snohomish PUD is the largest public utility in the state and the 12th largest on the West Coast. “We should be leading the charge on things like smart meters and renewable energy. We should be the one people look to,” he said.
There was also a split among the three regarding removal of four dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.
Sears is supportive of their removal in order to better ensure the survival of endangered salmon on the Columbia tributary, while Maertens believes talk of the dams’ removal shouldn’t move ahead until other projects are up and running to replace their energy. Additionally, Maertens said he’d like to see the PUD begin a serious exploration of geo-thermal projects. Olson, as has the board, has taken a neutral position on the dams issue, making Snohomish PUD an outlier among the state’s utilities, many of which have come out in support of the dams.
Regarding the PUD’s governance and discussion of increasing the board to five members from the current three, Olson said the board has talked through the proposal, and believes its current make-up provides good representation without the cost of a larger commission. Expanding the commission, Olson said, could run into the millions of dollars, with the addition of staff and analysts for each commissioner.
Maertens said he believes that cost would be appropriate, if it results in better decisions for the PUD.
Sears also said he supports a five-member board, having served on a five-member city council that he believes allows for better communication and representation.
All three candidates demonstrated firm knowledge of the issues before the PUD and the need to assure affordable and reliable electric service, while advancing goals for carbon-neutral energy, of which the PUD currently has met about 97 percent of that goal.
Six years ago, The Herald Editorial Board endorsed Olson for a third term and noted her impressive resume of experience and her institutional knowledge. “I know the PUD’s business. While I was an employee I managed 11 different departments, a division and retired as an assistant general manager,” she said.
She has since added six years to that resume.
There’s value, of course, in a fresh perspective, but the board now has that outlook from the other two board members: District 1’s Sidney Logan, who joined the board in 2017; and District 2’s Rebecca Wolfe who joined the board in 2019.
Olson, to her credit, has used her experience and knowledge on the commission and has retained an engaged interest in the utility and its customers. Voters should return her for another six-year term.
Ballots for Snohomish County voters will be mail on July 14 and must be returned to drop boxes or in the mall by Aug. 2. More primary election information and voter registration information from Snohomish County Elections is available at tinyurl.com/SnoCoPrimary22.
Correction: In an earlier version of this editorial, two references to Sears misidentified him. Those instances have been corrected.