At Clark College's Columbia Tech Center campus, Jim Malinowski is teaching a Power 101 class. His students include at least one employee of Clark Public Utilities, who's learning about his field from an outsider.
It's clear, in other words, that Malinowski won't need help in understanding the industry's arcane language and complex operations.
Affable and bespectacled, he wears suspend
ers and a vest. The Amboy resident is a utility policy and technical expert -- his opponent says he's obsessed with detail -- yet his affable style puts students at ease. "You've got a long name like mine," he says, smiling, to a student as he takes attendance.
Malinowski has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Washington State University, a master's degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University and a master's degree in business from Stanford University.
He worked for Pacific Gas & Electric Company in California, serving in various roles including manager of transmission planning and manager of power control.
In a story Malinowski takes pride in telling, his uncle, Joe Malinowski, a self-taught engineer who had lived in Aberdeen, somehow acquired the water rights to the Wynoochee River. He later declined to sell them to a private utility serving Grays Harbor County and instead sold them to the city of Aberdeen for one dollar.
Outside Aberdeen, on the Wishkah River, the Malinowski Dam -- which supplies the city's water -- is named after his uncle.
Power plant controversy
Jim Malinowski also comes from a family that backed the Grange, the populist agricultural organization that spearheaded a state initiative that enabled communities in Washington state to form publicly owned utilities early in the 20th century.
"I grew up hearing these war stories," Malinowski said. "I grew up with an appreciation of public power."
In 1993, when he retired from Pacific Gas & Electric Company, he moved to Amboy. By the mid-1990s, Malinowski, who regularly attends Clark Public Utilities' public hearings, had become a strong critic of the utility.
In particular, he and others said that if the utility chose to build the natural-gas-fired River Road Generating Plant in Vancouver -- completed in 1997 -- it would prove a mistake and lead to higher electric rates for customers.
When River Road was constructed, the utility surrendered rights to power it had previously bought through the Bonneville Power Administration -- which had provided nearly 100 percent of the utility's electricity -- leaving the utility more vulnerable to higher natural gas and electricity rates on the open market.
Not long after the facility was up and running, natural gas rates went up, as did the market rate of electricity, and soon customers' rates rose, too. Not everyone agrees on the extent to which the River Road facility contributed to the increase in rates, but its construction -- and the utility's shift away from BPA, a move Malinowski opposed -- was, in fact, a contributor.
And it was a situation that spoke to Malinowski's careful reading of power issues and to his willingness to tell a powerful utility it was wrong. It also illustrated why the utility's decisions matter.
Eventually, Malinowski took his criticisms onto the campaign trail, unsuccessfully challenging incumbent Commissioner Carol Curtis in 2000 and 2006, when he lost with 49.6 percent of the vote to Curtis' 50.2 percent.
'I get honest answers'
Utility officials, including Curtis -- who is not seeking re-election after 30 years of representing District 1 -- have defended the River Road plant, arguing BPA is limited in its ability to serve growing power demands and that River Road diversified the county's power supply.
Malinowski said the River Road decision can't be reversed, but it shouldn't be rationalized as a good decision, if only for the sake of avoiding a similar mistake in the future.
He said he's softened his criticism of the utility. Its current administration is open to feedback, he said. "I feel like I get honest answers."
Malinowski said he believes he can tackle the big-picture issues but also burrow into the nuts and bolts of the utility to hold its administrators accountable.
When asked what he thinks of opponent Julia Anderson, Malinowski said: "I'm not going to attack her," noting only that "she really has no background in the utility industry. Most of the policy you're going to make is related to operating within the utility industry."
He added that he's running on his qualifications and that if Anderson is elected, "I'll continue to go to the meetings. I don't want to burn bridges."
Malinowski called Anderson's political support as primarily coming from the "downtown establishment" while his base percolates in north Clark County.
Of the five other candidates who ran for the District 1 seat in the Aug. 7 primary, all but one have endorsed Malinowski for the position.
He also received the endorsement of the Clark County Association of Realtors. And he got the Sierra Club's seal of approval. However, he said, the environmental organization's endorsement came as a surprise, because he's a rural property rights advocate.
The Sierra Club summarized its endorsement of Malinowski on its website, saying he was able to explain "the intricacies and viability of the 'grid,' storage problems of renewable energy, and the impressive benefits of conservation."
Malinowski said, if elected, he would focus on keeping rates stable and affordable.
He said improved conservation and energy-efficiency would allow the county to grow population and jobs without putting increased pressure on the grid.
There's "a great deal more on conservation that we can do," he said.