Outgoing utilities commissioner: We always put customers first

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 

After 30 years of helping oversee Clark Public Utilities' power and water decisions, Carol Curtis is stepping down from her post as one of the utility's three elected commissioners.

Her last official public meeting was held on Dec. 11, and her final six-year term on the public utility's board ends at the beginning of 2013.

The 74-year-old real estate broker held the utility's District 1 seat, representing north Clark County, since 1982.

Earlier this year, she announced she would not run for re-election. Seven candidates sought to succeed her. Ultimately, Jim Malinowski, who'd unsuccessfully challenged Curtis in two previous utility elections, won the campaign. The retired utility engineer and power utilities technology instructor at Clark College will assume the District 1 office on Jan. 1.

Curtis said she's looking forward to moving from Salmon Creek to downtown Vancouver. She envisions staying involved in the community, including as a member of the board of H-RoC -- a nonpartisan political action committee committed to cultivating, developing and mentoring women who are seeking local political or appointed office.

The Columbian recently spoke with Curtis, who addressed everything from her achievements and disappointments, to her favorite authors, including the controversial novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand.

Her comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

What's your single greatest accomplishment as a utility commissioner?

I think (it's) the legacy of staying focused on the customer … it really was all about the customer, and I know that may sound like some PR statement but it's just the truth as far as I'm concerned. As a member of the commission it was my job (to empower the utility's administration) to

do what we saw was necessary to keep our customers the best-treated and served customers in the country as far as utilities go.

What do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Can I call it a disappointment? Because it wasn't a failure. It was the desire ultimately to let go of something the utility had been doing for so long, our appliance repair (program). The private sector part of me, which that's most of me, (asked if) should we be doing something the private sector's doing. But we were doing it so well and people loved it. We had one contractor who really didn't think the public (sector) should be doing something (the private sector should do). But by the same token no one else was servicing or repairing these old electric ceiling cable (heaters). There was no one who wanted to do it because it wasn't profitable to do it. We kept being challenged by one and then a group of (critics), and during all that time I was so disappointed we couldn't keep (doing something our customers loved). Yet we just finally gave it up.

What advice do you give to anyone considering running for public office?

I particularly like non-partisan (public office). I have no stomach for partisan politics. I really like that I didn't have to have a party line. I didn't have to answer to either set of political positions that I wouldn't be comfortable with. I can be broad spectrum. It's a beautiful opportunity to serve your community in a capacity that may help and, in a collective way, make some good decisions. You've got to like it, and you've got to be willing to not take things personally. If there are people shooting a few stray bullets … if you can't take that, don't run.

What will you do after you retire from the utility?

I'm going to move downtown. That's part of the reason I didn't run (for re-election). We're going to be in what you call a live/work (space). (There aren't) many of those and we're going through the city process and doing all of the things we're required to do. We're really downsizing, because I live out in Salmon Creek now on over an acre. We've been there for 20 years, and we're just ready to really downsize and compress.

What have you read recently?

"Fall of Giants" (by Ken Follett). (Follett) writes really good historical novels. For me, I never really liked history that much, but this makes it more interesting, and it gives you more of a perspective of what was really happening. I'll tell you, if you want to be provocative in this thing, I'm an Ayn Rand fan. It's not that I totally embrace everything she says, but there's enough of it that just makes me feel, "oh my God this is almost happening right now." I'm a true believer in capitalism, and yet a lot of the problems that we've incurred over the last decade or so (have) been created by greed. But I'm not sure it's just all capitalists that are greedy. There's a lot of greedy politicians in there, too.

What's the last movie you saw?

I just saw "Lincoln." It just reminded me, again, of the fact that what the people know is very little … when things are going on, let's face it, you and I don't know that much about what's going on. In Lincoln's day there (were) so many background things, trying to get those votes. It's still like that. Nothing's changed. Those were huge issues, but the process is still the same. And the unfortunate part is, hopefully, we're beyond just shooting the guy because we didn't like him … give me a break. Does that seem kind of … medieval? And yet that was here, and it bothers me to think that (the) Civil War happened … surely we're not going to get so polarized again that we have some internal combustion going on here. I have to believe it can't happen.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com