Public Utility Commissioner: Why You Should Pay Attention This Year
By Paul Pickett
What’s a “pud”?
Thurston Public Utility District is an odd bird. It had its first election in 1938, but despite having 70 elections since then, most people don’t know much about it, or even know it exists. But with this election cycle that may be changing.
First I’ll mention, for those who don’t know me, that I was a Commissioner for Thurston PUD for over 11 years. I decided not to run this fall and resigned from my position in May. So this is one job I know pretty well, and I have my opinion about the qualifications to hold it.
Thurston PUD is currently a water utility with several thousand customers and over 150 systems, so a Commissioner should have an interest in water and utility operations.
The PUD has also been looking into other lines of business such as wastewater, wholesale telecommunications (broadband fiber optic), and electric. The effort by the Thurston Public Power Initiative to put a measure on the ballot to grant the PUD electric authority has added a complex and contentious issue to the race for Commissioner.
Finally, because there are three Commissioners, whoever gets elected will need to get along with two strong and unique personalities who share equal power as elected officials.
Who would want this job?
This election has brought in three diverse candidates: Steve Fossum, Justin Kover, and Linda Oosterman.
Fossum is a state employee at DSHS and active in WFSE, the state employee union. Kover sells real estate, is a student at St. Martin University, and often speaks out on community issues. Oosterman is semi-retired as a licensed counselor, a former social services manager, and has been active in the Thurston county Democrats.
Fossum worked for many years in Clark County, and cites living in a “PUD County” as one reason for running. “I’m from a family of union electricians,” says Fossum. “I’ve spent my life in public service. For years I’ve watched Clark Public Utilities in action. I’ve wanted the challenge of running for PUD Commissioner, and this is my first opportunity.”
Oosterman sees herself as being in the right place in her life to serve as a leader. “I’m moderately retired, and I’ve spent hours and hours studying water issues and how the PUD works.” She points to her twenty years of management: “I know how to plan and execute with vision. I like to empower people and bring them together.”
Kover says “I’m all about open government, better rates, and clean water.” He cites his role as a citizen activist and his self-study of local and state government. His signs say “Proven Leadership”, and I ask him his basis for making that claim. “In 2008 I went to the Olympia City Council and commented on their water system plan.” He also mentions his criticism of the County’s Critical Area Ordinance. “I was out there by myself before STOP stepped in [see sidebar on STOP]. I called on the County Commissioners to take a second look”.
So what’s leadership? Fossum points to his union activism where he’s served in several elected positions. Oosterman has been a manager, leading in the hierarchy of an organization. Kover’s brand of leadership has been to be the maverick, speaking out on issues at public comment periods.
To me, leadership is about leading people. Being elected seems the strongest way to prove leadership, and Fossum has that experience. Being a manager like Oosterman means you learn leadership skills, but you lead within an institutional structure. Being a gadfly and sticking your neck out like Kover is a way to lead, but to me it seems the weakest form of leadership.
What to do with electric authority…or without it?
I asked all three candidates what they would do if the voters gave Thurston PUD electric authority this fall. Kover said he had no particular ideas, but that he was “not dogmatic about public versus private, just dogmatic about lower rates.”
Oosterman says she will honor what the voters say: “if they want it, we’ll move forward”. She expects more study would be needed, but the results of the PUD’s first study (expected to be released at the end of August) would need to be considered first. She is intrigued by the availability of some cheap federal power, but she wants to make sure it’s feasible, it’s good for consumers and for the PUD, and she would like it done without confrontation.
Fossum recognizes that electrification is a large undertaking. He’d like to use the cheap federal power in an efficient manner. “I’m interested in what the consultant says. The study is a starting point,” says Fossum.
And if the voters don’t approve electric authority? Kover is unhappy with LOTT and their high sewer rates. “LOTT has no elected authority,” he notes, “and I’d like to explore giving the PUD authority for LOTT. “ Oosterman would like to see the PUD grow its role in the community with water. “I’d like to see more collaboration on conservation and sustainability” she notes. Fossum is interested in exploring wholesale broadband: “Maybe we can use it to attract business. What else can the PUD do to touch people’s lives?”
Can’t you all just get along?
When asked about working with other Commissioners, Fossum says his experience at the Division of Child Support will serve him well. “I work all the time with strong willed people who disagree. I try to reach consensus. I’m deliberate and think before I speak. I let things roll off my back, and the appropriate response to an accusation without proof is no response.”
Oosterman says she’s taken a conflict resolution course, taught anger management classes, and done mediation. She notes, “if tempers flare, it’s not personal. Collegiality, respect, integrity, and honesty are the key to being professional.”
I was particularly curious about Kover’s take on this issue, since several times this year he’s come before the PUD Commission attacking the integrity of the Commission and of other people not present. On one occasion his comments triggered a shouting match with a Commissioner. Not the best way to build relationships with your future fellow Commissioners! Kover says “it’s my duty to do business and cooperate with others. I’ll look for places where we agree or we may have to agree to disagree. But we must keep the lines of communication open.”
So how do they compare?
Says Kover: “I’ve actually been involved in utility issues. I put myself out in the community and take tough stands on controversial issues.” Oosterman points to her management background, her vision, and her strength as a collaborator. Fossum says, “I don’t know the other candidates and don’t want to compare. My campaign is about my public service and my ideas for the future.”
So how do they fit my criteria? All three seem to have taken an active interest in utilities and made them their study. Regarding electric authority, it seems to me that Kover is the most reluctant to move in that direction. Oosterman is taking a “wait and see” attitude and no position on the electrification initiative. Fossum seems to have the most enthusiasm for the initiative and exploring the electric utility option.
Regarding relations with the sitting Commissioners, Fossum seems to have an even-keel approach that should serve him well if issues get contentious. Oosterman seems to have an excellent background for inter-personal relations, although it seems to me that navigating the emotional roller coaster for politics will present some challenges for her. Kover has made such an effort to be critical and contentious, it’s difficult to see how he could work with a team of three equals to seek consensus.
One other consideration is their background and support base. Fossum brings his union and state worker background. Oosterman has a career in the social services and connections with local Democrats. Kover’s been strongly connected to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, who are actively fighting environmental protection and organized labor.
Of course, it’s your choice on August 7th. The PUD may be way down the ballot, but it could have a big impact on your life in the future. Check the three candidates out yourself, and give it some thought. ◙
Note: In the primary election, only those voters within Commissioner District No. 1 will vote on this position. In the general election, all voters in the county will vote on this position.