Community Engagement

Winter travel in Washington State

Winter is never a great time for business travel.  After going to cold and snowy Minnesota in December, I went to cool and rainy Washington state in January. My purpose was to speak to a joint meeting of the Executive Board and the Board of Directors of Energy Northwest (EN). EN is a joint action agency that helps 26 public utility districts (called PUDs) and municipalities across Washington state take advantage of economies of scale and shared services to increase efficiencies and lower costs, benefitting more than 1.5 million customers. Among other things, EN owns and operates four electricity generating facilities: the Columbia Generating Station (the only nuclear energy facility in the Pacific Northwest), the White Bluffs Solar Station, the Packwood Lake Hydroelectric Project, and the Nine Canyon Wind Project.  When EN CEO Brad Sawatzke and Chief Communication Officer Mike Paoli asked me last year to address their joint board meeting, I was pleased to say yes.

The Board meeting was in Olympia, the state capital, but I flew into Seattle. Before I left Seattle for the one-hour drive down I-5 to Olympia, I met Debra Smith, Seattle City Light’s new CEO, and Jackie Flowers, Tacoma Public Utilities’ new CEO, for a quick dinner.  It was wonderful to catch up with them, and to hear about their transitions. They are both whip-smart, personable and dynamic, and I think will do very well in their new positions. 

I made the drive to Olympia at night in the driving rain, and it was pretty hairy.  The fact that Avis had told me at the airport that I had the choice of either a pick-up or a minivan did not help.  I politely explained to the Avis rep that I had reserved neither a pick-up nor a minivan—in fact, my reservation specified clearly that I was to get a mid-size car!  But to no avail—Avis gave me the “talk to the hand” non-response.  It really took me back to one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes—the one where Jerry and Elaine try to rent a car, but despite his having made a reservation, the rental agency has no cars.  If you have never seen it, check it out here. As Jerry so eloquently told the desk agent—“you know how to take the reservation, but you don’t know how to hold the reservation—and that is really the most important part—the holding!”  In my case, I ended up holding (in fact, clutching) the wheel of my boat-sized Chrysler Pacifica minivan the entire way to Olympia.

My travel woes, however, were amply repaid when I got to the Board meeting.  I had a chance to meet both the members of the Executive Board (a mix of inside and outside directors, chaired by Sid Morrison, a former member of Congress and experienced Pacific NW hand) and the full Board of Directors.  The full Board members come from the member utilities, and most are elected Commissioners of their PUDs—what we at the Association call “policymakers.”  This gives the Board a different flavor from those staffed by full-time utility managers.  These directors bring the concerns of their various communities directly to the joint action agency that serves them all.  And they are an active and engaged group.

I talked about the Association, the advocacy and learning community it creates for its utility members, and how it fits into the public power “ecosystem” of individual utilities, joint action agencies, and state/regional associations.  They asked lots of great questions, so we had a good discussion.  And I was able to stay for most of their meeting, so I got the opportunity to hear first hand about the issues they are dealing with (including climate change legislation in the Washington state legislature) and activities they are involved in (such as a project to install EV charging stations along highways in rural Washington, to support longer distance EV travel).  Hearing about these issues “on the ground” helps me better understand our members’ needs and concerns, and I try to bring the information I learn back to staff at the office. 

That night, I attended the reception in downtown Olympia that EN held for state legislators.  I had the opportunity to speak with a number of the legislators.  I was able to see first-hand the strong positive relations between the legislators and the EN members.  Service to the community is in the DNA of public power communities in the Pacific Northwest, but it is wonderful that these legislators understand and appreciate that.

I had to drive back to Seattle the next day and catch my flight to DC, so it was a quick trip. And since I have complained about Avis in this post, I should close on an upbeat note. Alaska Airlines’ direct flights between Sea-Tac and Washington Reagan were on time, the employees were polite and responsive, and the cheese and fruit plate sold on board was much better than that available from certain other airlines that shall remain nameless. And how often do you get to fly on Flight No. 1 (to Seattle) and Flight No. 2 (from Seattle)?  So, thank you Alaska Airlines for getting me there and back again with minimum hassles and maximum service. And my deepest thanks go to the TSA and FAA employees who worked without pay to make those flights possible.  I hope that by the time this blog gets published, the shutdown is in our national rearview mirror, and they are being paid again.