Powering Strong Communities

Good governance: How boards help public power succeed

Governing boards — whether a city council or an independently elected or appointed group — are a valuable link in ensuring that public power organizations operate and move forward in ways that represent the desires of their communities. Being a utility board member or commissioner requires getting up to speed on a lot of technical topics and balancing several roles. We asked public power leaders what makes for good governance.

Keys to success

Ron Skagen, a commissioner for Douglas County Public Utility District in Washington state, stressed that it is important to have good rapport with fellow board members, to support each other — and utility leadership — in being successful.

“No one person should dominate the commission,” cautioned Skagen. “As you’ve been there awhile, you have to work at making sure new commissioners are equal. It doesn’t mean we have the same skill or interest, but we have the same authority.” Skagen is serving his 14th year on the commission; he noted that he has the longest tenure of the current slate of commissioners for the PUD.

“Never forget that you are serving the public, and they ultimately do want the utility to be successful,” said Randy Smith, a commissioner for Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state and chair of the American Public Power Association’s Policy Makers Council. “When they get frustrated, quite often it means there is an issue out there.”

Both Skagen and Smith credit the nonpartisan nature of the roles as helpful in discussions. “We don’t talk in terms of party; we talk in terms of what’s best for our county,” said Smith.

Smith recalled a contentious meeting shortly after he started on the board that concerned the PUD’s strategic plan. He recalled that the meeting had many citizens in attendance and lasted for more than six hours. “It was painful, but it was a necessary part of us growing into who we are today, which is a commission who really steps back and tries to do our homework and think through our pluses and minuses of the decisions we make.”

“[We have] two eyes, two ears, and one mouth — and there’s a message there. Good governance starts with good observation and good listening skills, and a lot less with your ability to speak,” added Smith.

“We all have a background in our community; we all attempt to represent not only that constituency, but how those constituencies work together,” said Smith, who noted that he was elected to represent the agricultural community in the district. “They are not always going to agree, but if there is trust between me and the people who have elected me, that goes a long way to maintaining good governance.”

Randy Howard, general manager of the Northern California Power Agency, also pointed to the value of having a board that brings a broad set of interests. The joint action agency has 16 members throughout northern California, including utilities serving urban areas in the San Francisco Bay Area and rural areas that have a strong agricultural industry.

The governing board being that diverse — regionally and in the types of communities they serve — creates some really good dialogue and discussion,” said Howard. “We tend to get to some very good decisions.”

Staying in your lane

Knowing who you serve as a governing board member can also be different than who you serve in other roles.

“When we get a new governing board member, they feel strongly that their role is to represent their utility and their consumers within that community,” said Howard. “When they are on our governing board, they need to be concerned about their community interests, but they also need to recognize they are part of a much larger group of entities that are very diverse and representing the interest of our entity, not just their community.” 

“With good intentions, it is easy to drift into what is not your responsibility, and that can be very disruptive to the utility,” said Skagen. “Commissioners need to stay in their lane and not try to be the manager. Some might come to the role as a small business owner and come in with the mindset that they are a manager … but we should expect the GM to do the job.”

“[Our] two most important jobs are who we hire as our manager and making sure the budget we approve reflects the wishes of our constituency,” noted Smith. “I see my job as one of understanding what we are doing and looking down the road for speed bumps and potholes to make sure we can navigate them with the least possible damage to the utility.”

“Our role is to look down five to 10 years or longer, while our manager’s role is to execute on a much shorter time frame,” explained Smith.

Staying informed

Smith advises other governing board members, especially those in their first few years in the role, to “go to every educational meeting you possibly can think of and take the information in like it’s through a fire hose. You may not need it all, but it will help clarify for you what the issues are and help you identify what you are really interested in working on in your time as a commissioner.”

He mentioned that Chelan PUD commissioners attend APPA events for the education and to “expand their horizons” on what issues other utilities are dealing with and how they are meeting any challenges.

Skagen and his fellow commissioners also look to APPA and state associations for training both new commissioners and longer-term commissioners to get up to speed on the latest issues and to network with other utility governors. “We look to these associations to help us and to provide continuity. Elected folks, we come and go. By definition, we should not be there forever,” he said.

While governing board members don’t have to be technical experts to do their job, Skagen noted that members are more effective when they “understand some of the nuts and bolts of utility operations.”

“You are expected to make yourself qualified through training. You are expected to ask tough questions of management,” shared Skagen.

He said that the commissioners attend a monthly training session on topics that include both industry updates and governance processes and issues.

Do not be afraid to demonstrate what you don’t know by your questions. Most likely, if you have a question, someone else does, too,” said Skagen.

From the public power organization side, Howard noted that NCPA also makes an effort to write articles and social media posts for its member utilities that highlight the work that goes into being a board member to help educate community members on how much time and effort the role requires.

Strengthening relationships

In addition to staying up to date on utility issues, Smith also advises that governing board members take the time to build relationships with other elected officials outside of the utility focus. Chelan PUD commissioners, for example, get together with port commissioners and other local authorities for a monthly meeting.

“Having those relationships across the elected lines of your responsibility, recognizing that you serve the same constituency, can really pay dividends in working together,” he said.

Howard stressed the importance of offering this connectivity through utility meetings. NCPA hosts regular roundtable sessions for board members in its events, which Howard said gives members the opportunity to connect and discuss community issues — utility related or not.

“Within your agendas, try to ensure that you provide and schedule those types of roundtable times,” said Howard. “These people are busy. You want to make it a valuable time for them as well. When you have those kinds of forums and their access to others, that becomes really valuable to some of them.”

Howard noted that some of the hot topics brought up in virtual events in 2020 included strategies for deferring payments and eliminating shutoffs to support customers experiencing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the long term, having these relationships also helps with being good advocates.

“[Board members] have the ability to open doors that I don’t normally have the ability to open,” noted Howard. “A lot of congressional members started off as a mayor or city council member or county supervisor within these communities, and so a lot of our elected officials know them well.”

Having the relationship is one piece of advocating; the other is learning how to be an effective ambassador for the utility.

“Part of becoming a good elected official is learning how to advocate on behalf of the utility and being comfortable serving in that capacity,” said Skagen. That learning process happens, in part, through having connections with other utility board members and working through associations to effectively advocate and share resources, he said.

One message is conveying what distinguishes public power from other utility types. While Skagen admitted that there’s a strong public power presence in Washington state, and that many legislators understand the benefits of community ownership, he shared that there can still be times when the PUD message gets “lumped in” with other utilities, even if its stance on an issue differs.

Howard underscored how education is helpful in ensuring that board members have a full picture of how a legislative or regulatory change or policy goal might affect residents and city budgets. As an example, Howard mentioned that if a city has an ambitious emissions reduction goal, then board members can provide informed details about the financial impact of stranded assets when questioned at city council meetings.

Motivated to serve

Both Smith and Skagen felt compelled to take on the roles through a sense of civic duty.

“I think all of us should find ways to reinvest in our community. You have to look at your interests and skill sets and see how you can do that,” said Skagen. He also noted that being part of a group that shares values in giving back to the community is fun.

“We have a free country, and in order for it to continue to be a free country, we all have a responsibility to seek out those areas where we can give back to make it better or at least maintain what we have,” said Smith. “If you remember who your electorate is — and listen and try to navigate the needs and wants with what’s best for the utility — it’s hard to imagine not being successful at the end of the day.”