In Our View: Curtis Kept the Right Focus

Retiring utility commissioner leaves 30-year record of admirable service

Published:

 

Modern Americans usually take their electricity and water services for granted — until they temporarily lose access to either of the twin essentials. Carol Curtis, however, never took for granted her important role for 30 years as elected commissioner at Clark Public Utilities.

Curtis announced her retirement earlier this year and attended her last official public meeting Dec. 11. Today is her last official day as commissioner. Her abiding interest in customer service is easily quantifiable. For five years the utility provider has been judged No. 1 in customer service among midsize utilities in Western states.

As one of three commissioners, Curtis served admirably, helping oversee service to 184,488 electricity customers who in 2011 consumed an average of 14,182 kilowatt-hours of power per residence, plus 30,740 water customers who collectively used 434 million cubic feet of water.

Those numbers and measurement standards might bore lots of folks, but Curtis always saw beyond the mundane technicalities of public utilities. She beams at the mere mention of subjects others might consider boring. That’s because, as Curtis explained in a recent Columbian story, the job of Clark Public Utilities commissioner is “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.”

Otherwise, Curtis might have been even more disappointed than she was by what happened in 2008. After a long and contentious community debate, Clark Public Utilities finally abandoned its 62-year-old, publicly subsidized appliance-repair program. The service was unique in the state, and was supported in a poll by 72 percent of respondents.

Curtis remembers: “We were doing it so well and people loved it.” But as The Columbian editorialized, the service belonged in the competitive private sector.

The stress of that controversy did not dampen Curtis’ or Clark Public Utilities’ commitment to customer service. “It really was all about the customer … to keep our customers the best treated and served customers in the country as far as utilities go,” she said.

Curtis also loved the job of utility commissioner because of its nonpartisan nature. Candidates don’t run — and aren’t elected — according to political affiliation, which was just fine with her. “I have no stomach for partisan politics. … I didn’t have to answer to either set of political positions that I wouldn’t be comfortable with.” And that refreshing difference between a utilities commissioner and, say, a county commissioner was what inspired and energized Curtis for three decades.

Her successor, Jim Malinowski, lost twice to Curtis in previous elections but won this year, gaining 54.3 percent of the votes in a race against Julia Anderson. Malinowski brings to the post a broad background as a retired utility engineer. We hope he’s as successful as Curtis at keeping partisan politics out of public utilities and keeping the focus tightly trained on customer service.