Regime Change Begins at Home

In Seattle, incompetence goes unpunished.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE to do to get fired around here?

While a tiny percentage of Americans bothered to go to the polls and make their voices heard in the election this week, an even more disturbing sign of apathy is closer to home.

In Seattle, we have public employees who are totally immune to any of the checks and balances we've put in place to make sure they're doing the job on our behalf. They aren't protected by unions or clueless bureaucracies or powerful lobbyists, and their failures are well known. Yet they elude accountability because those charged with hiring, firing, and overseeing them refuse to act, even in the face of voluminous evidence of incompetence, negligence, stubbornness, poor judgment, and evasion.

TAKE THE CASE OF Gary Zarker, who has headed Seattle City Light under three mayors. Zarker has presumably passed the test of time. Yet City Light, a public utility ostensibly run for the public benefit, is a mess—even a disaster. Electric rates are up nearly 60 percent in two years; the utility's debt has ballooned to nearly $2 billion, enough to fund a monorail line. Then there's City Light's $40 million computer boondoggle, a technical and implementation disaster that screwed up billing and customer service. Infuriated ratepayers got incorrect—and often huge—electric bills. City Light balanced that nicely by not billing some commercial users enough.

The utility's management has tried to blame some of these fiascos on circumstance—Enron and the California energy crisis or drought. But it's just not so. An independent audit commissioned by the city has determined that City Light's management has systematically and consistently made the wrong decisions and bet on the wrong energy horses, costing ratepayers millions. Not only that, but they haven't learned from their mistakes. Consultants have determined that City Light suffered huge financial losses in the energy market because it did not have in place a system for safeguarding its financial risks, a system that is standard at other utilities. Even now, no such system is in place. Far from being a victim of circumstance, as claimed by Zarker, the utility is badly run and vulnerable, in the opinion of experts.

In addition to making poor and costly decisions, the audit also found that City Light has no up-to-date strategic plan, is overseen by too few people who actually know the energy business, has done too little cost- cutting, and has developed a culture that is defensive and prone to attacking critics. Let's not sugarcoat this: The audit reamed Zarker and City Light as he runs it.

So, since Zarker serves at the pleasure of Mayor Greg Nickels, who made such a big show of lopping off department heads when he was elected, you'd think Nickels would be happy to usher him to the chopping block. Not exactly. Late last week, Nickels spokesperson Marianne Bichsel told The Seattle Times: "The mayor believes Gary is doing a good job."

A good job. What is Nickels thinking? Zarker is a pal of the mayor, so cronyism is one explanation. Another is that Nickels actually believes that City Light is so unmanageable that a "good" manager is a guy willing to take the heat doing a thankless chore. The least-charitable explanation is that Nickels is setting the bar for his own re-election.

BUT IT'S NOT ONLY Zarker. Seattle School Superintendent Joseph Olchefske is under fire for the massive deficit the district has "discovered." As Seattle Weekly's Rick Anderson reports ("Still Subtracting," p. 12), the $33 million "shortfall" is likely to top $37 million when all the cipherin' has been checked. But this catastrophe is not out of the blue. As Anderson reports, the state auditor's office has been warning the district for years that it has major problems with its budgets and math, but the district seemed lax and disinterested in fixing the problems. The scope of the new budget meltdown was apparently hidden from the school board and downplayed internally. But there is no excuse for a financial mistake this massive, one that, on its face, suggests that people were either lying, cheating, or asleep at the wheel. Or all three.

At the very least, it screams out that internal systems are in chaos and that managers collectively are incompetent and fiscally reckless. The district's only defense is that the funds weren't misused. But that doesn't wash. Maybe no one is sunbathing in Bermuda, but spending tax money you don't have without permission is malfeasance. Sure, times are tough, but no public entity has the right to steal public money for its own use, however noble the cause. This is all the more a disaster for Olchefske because he was a "numbers" guy who was once the district's chief financial officer. That it happened on his watch suggests he screwed up big-time, because he has no excuse for being out of the loop.

Belief in Olchefske's leadership is rapidly draining out of the district with no- confidence votes at two high schools (Franklin and Ballard). But how do his bosses on the school board feel about it? "We are confident in Superintendent Olchefske's ability to guide us through this crisis," they announced in a statement last week. They also take partial blame for the problem, but what good does it do if the buck stops—and falls into a black hole? Taking blame doesn't mean anything if there's no consequence to go with it.

The Seattle Way seems to be a full- employment act for poor performers.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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