Race for utility commissioner a highly charged campaign

Next Clark Public Utilities commissioner will help agency maneuver challenging future

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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More from the candidates:

Julia Anderson

Jim Malinowki

Candidates

Julia Anderson

Residence: Amboy area.

Occupation: Freelance journalist.

Endorsements include: Building Industry Association of Clark County; Clark Public Utilities Commissioners Carol Curtis and Nancy Barnes; former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard; Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers; former Washington state Rep. Val Ogden; Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

Funds raised: $17,645; contributors include H-RoC political action committee; Heidi Bixby; Carol Curtis; Ed Lynch; Jan and Steven Oliva.

Website: www.electjuliaanderson.com.

Jim Malinowski

Residence: Amboy.

Occupation: Power utilities technology instructor at Clark College.

Endorsements include: Clark County Association of Realtors; Sierra Club; Dave Campos; Sherry Erickson; Helen Nowlin; Phil Parker; Dan Ogden; Gary Loomis; Mike Rotschy; Fred and Sara Stryker.

Funds raised: $17,353; contributors include Richard Colf; Margaret Hepola; Kim Sam; Tom Burkholder; Joe Tanner.

Website: http://jim-malinowski.webs.com/.

When voters select a new Clark Public Utilities commissioner, they’ll shape the direction of a three-member board that provides commodities used by tens of thousands of Clark County businesses and households: electricity and water.

The candidates in the upcoming Nov. 6 general election are Jim Malinowski, 74, a retired utility engineer and a power utilities technology instructor at Clark College; and Julia Anderson, 65, a freelance journalist and former Columbian business editor. The winner will represent District 1 in north Clark County.

The commission’s job seems simple enough: make sure the utility’s 349-member staff keeps the region’s seemingly abundant supply of water and electricity flowing, at affordable rates. In reality, it faces thorny issues tied to the impacts of climate change on water and power systems; costly statewide renewable energy mandates; and challenging negotiations with the Bonneville Power Administration, which provides about 57 percent of the utility’s power.

As a political entity the utility isn’t terribly sexy. The utility’s public hearings are sparsely attended. Controversies are few. Clark Public Utilities has the lowest operations and maintenance cost per customer of any public or private utility in Washington state. And the commissioner race jockeys for voters’ attention on a ballot populated by presidential, gubernatorial and congressional campaigns.

Nevertheless, commissioners — who serve in paid, part-time positions and who are compensated no more than $36,160 a year — are the public’s conduit to the voter-owned, as opposed to private, utility.

Anderson, making her first run for elected office, faces a tough task in attempting to thwart Malinowski’s third bid for a seat at the utility’s dais. Out of seven candidates, he garnered 30 percent of the vote in the primary, compared to Anderson’s second-place 17 percent. In a nonpartisan race, said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, 30 percent in the district-only primary race “is a good sign” for Malinowski. The race is countywide in the general election.

Malinowski said he’s the more qualified candidate, noting his knowledge of and background in the utility industry. There’s no one on the utility’s elected commission with professional experience in the utility industry, he said, and that needs to change.

But Anderson isn’t ceding any ground. She calls herself a collaborator and a communicator, someone who fits the job of a commissioner — to set policy and explain the utility to the public. “I’m not interested in tweaking power contracts,” she said.

There are other differences between Malinowski and Anderson in how they’d approach the job, which includes setting utility policy, approving annual budgets, deciding electric and water rates, and overseeing the utility’s CEO. The Columbian spent time with both candidates to prepare its report on their race.

Candidates expand on their positions on utility issues

Julia Anderson and Jim Malinowski made a joint campaign appearance to a small audience -- the editorial board of The Columbian. That discussion offered insights into areas of agreement and disagreement between the two candidates. Here are some highlights.

• Experience: Although Malinowski has technical expertise, Anderson said his experience with fiscal matters "is less obvious." Malinowski countered that he was a manager of power control "and one of my jobs was doing economic analysis."

• River Road generating Plant: Anderson said the facility diversified the county's energy portfolio. And with abundant natural gas and low prices, she added, the facility is proving to be a good, long-term investment.

Malinowski said he wished the utility "could go back to BPA" and that natural gas prices will "never come down to where they're competitive with BPA rates." Anderson countered that BPA "is raising its rates."

• Initiative 937: Both candidates have said they voted against Initiative 937, the voter-approved, statewide renewable energy law. The law resulted in a costly push into wind power for Clark Public Utilities, and partly contributed to the utility board's decision to raise electric rates last year.

Malinowski has said he supports the development of cost-effective renewable sources of energy. He voted against I-937, however, because it threatened the region's federal public power rights and would lead to higher electric rates.

Likewise, Anderson has said she voted against I-937 because it would mean higher power rates that would undermine job retention and growth in the region.

Both said that if they had their way, they would count hydropower as a renewable source of energy, which I-937 does not.

Anderson said she'd go further, seeking to modify the law through the state legislative process. Previous attempts to significantly change the law have been unsuccessful.

• • •

After The Columbian ran an editorial endorsing Anderson, in part, for "her recent efforts to generate an aggressive and engaging campaign" and for her "issues research," Malinowski said he was disappointed he didn't get the newspaper's nod.

But he was unbowed, taking stock of what he believes are his advantages, including that his name appears first, above Anderson's, on the ballot -- a result of his receiving the most votes in the primary.

Aside from any issues in a political race, research has shown that the position of a candidate's name on a ballot can positively or negatively influence how many votes that candidate receives.