Of the elections on this year’s primary and general election ballots, the two races for Snohomish County Public Utility District commissioners have the potential for the most daily effect on residents’ lives yet may not receive as much attention as races for Congress and Legislature.
Along with making decisions that determine the rates for about 348,000 electrical customers in Snohomish County and Camano Island and for another 20,000 water customers, the three-member board of commissioners for the Snohomish PUD also is responsible for ensuring the stability and security of the county’s electrical grid and providing oversight for what has become a regional leader in the research and development of energy technologies and energy efficiency.
Ordinarily, the board’s three districts are up for election every two years. District 2, which represents the southwest corner of the county and the cities of Mukilteo, Lynnwood and Edmonds, is on its regular election schedule. The election for District 1, which represents the northern half of the county and the cities of Everett, Marysville, Granite Falls, Arlington, Darrington and Stanwood and Camano Island, will elect a commissioner for the remaining two years of its six-year term.
At least among commission hopefuls, the PUD has generated interest, with four candidates for District 1 and five for District 2. The top two candidates for each from the Aug. 7 primary will move on to the Nov. 6 General Election.
PUD District 1
Following the resignation of Dave Aldrich from District 1, the board appointed Sid Logan of Arlington to the board in March, 2017, following a review of 25 applicants.
Logan, who worked in the oil and gas industry before moving to Arlington in 1999, worked for several years with the Arlington School District, first as a bus driver but advancing to its operations manager in 2008, a position he held until his retirement in 2016. It was his work with the utility to improve the school district’s energy efficiency that led to his interest in serving on the PUD board.
Logan is challenged by Mary Rollins, an Everett social service provider and former business owner; Sam Buchanan, a state social services training specialist who lives in Arlington; and Bruce King, an Arlington cattle and pig farmer and former software engineer with Microsoft, who is making his second run for the PUD board position.
Rollins and Buchanan present themselves as well-studied on the PUD and the role of the board. And both said the PUD should be doing more to prioritize assistance for ratepayers who are on fixed incomes and those with medical needs.
But among the challengers, King presents himself as the best prepared and informed.
King ran against Aldrich in 2014. At the time the editorial board faulted King for not having attended PUD board meetings, which he admitted. King has corrected that failing, and has become a regular at meetings, frequently questioning staff and board members on a range of issues.
King said he has three priorities, should he be elected: putting a tighter rein on the practice of no-bid contracts, being a better caretaker of ratepayers’ concerns and exploring the PUD’s role in delivering broadband internet to the county’s rural areas not served by providers.
It’s the third item the editorial board has greatest interest in. PUDs were vital to the development of rural electrification decades ago, and we hope to see Snohomish PUD and other public utilities take a similar lead to do the same to ensure broadband internet where providers have dragged their feet.
King sees opportunity for the PUD to facilitate a public-private investment in fiber-optic infrastructure which providers could then lease to enable broadband service, as is done in 14 of the state’s 39 counties, including neighboring Skagit and Chelan counties. Under state law PUDs cannot provide the service on their own.
Logan agrees there’s a need for rural broadband service, but says the costs would have to be considered. The PUD, he said, would consider allowing internet providers to use the PUD’s utility poles and other infrastructure to extend that service.
There’s also a split between Logan and King on the investment that the PUD has put into research and development. King is critical of the money spent in the past on a tidal energy project that was abandoned when a federal grant was pulled and the Sunset Falls hydroelectric project that the board shelved when it determined it did not need the electricity it would have produced.
Logan, during his more than a year of service on the board, has demonstrated thoughtful consideration of the issues before the board and a commitment to the concerns of PUD ratepayers.
But the PUD board could benefit from the dissenting voice that King is likely to provide as a commissioner. The editorial board endorses King to complete the term’s remaining two years.
PUD District 2
Incumbent commissioner Kathy Vaughn may be among the longest-serving public officials in the county. First elected in 1994, Vaughn is running for her fifth six-year term on the PUD board.
That length of service affords her institutional knowledge and background that would be tough for any challenger to match. And it means that she bears a share of responsibility for 24 years of the PUD’s oversight, which includes successes and controversies.
Vaughn has drawn four challengers: David Chan is a business consultant who has served on the board of commissioners for Fire District 1 for 12 years; Maggie Mae is a small business consultant and chairwoman for the Snohomish County Libertarian Party; Kaili Chickering, a recent University of Washington graduate, is employed as a research technician at the VA hospital in Seattle; and Rebecca Wolfe is a career educator and activist.
Chan offers a background in financial management, but he told the editorial board that if he won election to the PUD board he would not step down from his Fire District 1 position. Both positions make significant time demands of commissioners; the constituents of each district deserve an official who can devote the time required to each. As well, Chan continues to downplay the seriousness of a “hot mike” exchange with a fellow commissioner last year. During the conversation, Chan suggested — he says in a joking fashion — that the district should hire Mexican immigrants because it would be cheaper. Chan and fellow commissioner Bob Meador apologized, but both rejected demands to resign. Asked by the board about the comment, Chan continued to excuse it as satire. The Herald Editorial Board did not endorse him for re-election to the fire district board; we can’t recommend him for the PUD position.
Among the other challengers, Wolfe deserves consideration. She offers a long list of community service, including time on the Edmonds Economic Development Commission, that city’s committee on climate protection and other environmental and conservation efforts. And she has prepared herself for the position by earning a master’s degree in environmental law and policy from the Vermont Law School. She also holds a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga.
She also has made extensive research of Northwest power policy and recent studies that show that energy efficiency has slowed the pace of growth in demand for electricity, which she says should guide PUD decisions.
And it has, specifically the board’s decision to shelve the Sunset Falls project.
Vaughn, during her 24 years on the PUD board, has provided strong financial and policy guidance to the utility and its ratepayers. She is committed to the PUD’s research and promotion of renewable energy technologies and its efforts to promote energy efficiency. And, as Northwest utilities continue to address a threat by the Trump administration to privatize the electrical transmission system of the Bonneville Power Administration — which provides about 80 percent of the Snohomish PUD’s electricity — the PUD will need a seasoned hand to help resist that effort, while at the same time negotiating with the BPA to keep rates low.
Voters should return Vaughn to the PUD post.