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Aug. 14, 2020

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Clark Public Utilities board race draws crowded field

Seven candidates share their priorities, ideas and proposals

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
7 Photos
Clark Public Utilities, which provides electricity to more than 183,000 residential and business customers, gets its energy from a mix of sources, including its gas-fired River Road Generating Plant.
Clark Public Utilities, which provides electricity to more than 183,000 residential and business customers, gets its energy from a mix of sources, including its gas-fired River Road Generating Plant. Photo Gallery

Seven candidates are competing for the District 1 position on the Clark Public Utilities Board of Commissioners now held by Carol Curtis, who is not seeking re-election after 30 years of representing the North Clark County district.

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 7 primary (ballots are being mailed out today) will move on to the Nov. 6 general election. That’s when voters county-wide will select the new commissioner, who will join Nancy Barnes and Byron Hanke on the three-member utility board.

Commissioners serve six-year terms in paid, part-time positions where they are compensated no more than $36,160 per year. They set utility policy, approve annual budgets, decide electric and water rates, and select the utility’s CEO.

The primary election arrives at time of increasing complexity for the utility.

While it still taps the Bonneville Power Administration for a portion of its power supply, the utility has recently taken on more responsibility for meeting the county’s energy demands. Meanwhile, Initiative 937 — the voter-approved, statewide renewable energy law — has meant a costly push into wind power for the utility. The law’s mandates contributed, in part, to the hike in electric rates that commissioners adopted unanimously last year.

The Columbian asked the candidates to describe their experience and qualifications. Candidates also offered ideas on how to increase public participation in the voter-owned utility, and discussed their priorities.

The candidates also weighed in on I-937, which requires large utilities to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by the year 2020. Hydroelectric power, which accounts for nearly three-fourths of state electricity generation, is not defined in the law as a renewable source of energy.

Here are the District 1 primary candidates (listed in alphabetical order) and their responses:

• Julia Anderson, 65, former Columbian business editor, Amboy area.

Background and qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Idaho, regional advisory board member for Umpqua Bank, former writer of the Energy Adviser column for Clark Public Utilities, and a business news commentator on KXL 101.1 FM.

On I-937: She said she voted against I-937 “because of my in-depth understanding of Southwest Washington’s economy and its major employers. I knew that I-937 would mean higher power rates. Those higher costs undermine job retention and job growth for our region.”

Anderson said she would “work with our elected legislative representatives to re-examine I-937 and elevate the energy discussion.”

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Anderson said she wants to raise “the level of discussion of energy issues with voters and the community. We all need to be energy voters, and that means we need to be informed.” Through her professional background, Anderson said, she’s attained “a very deep understanding of the economy here in Clark County,” including what employers’ energy needs are. She said she would work to preserve low-cost, predictable power rates to support the region’s economy.

• David Campos, 32, commercial loan officer, Battle Ground.

Background and qualifications: Master’s degree in financial analysis from Portland State University and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Washington State University Vancouver. Board member of the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

On I-937: Campos voted against the initiative. He calls it a “one-size-fits-all” policy. “We live in a hydropower-rich area of the nation and for the law to consider this type of energy non-renewable is absurd,” he said.

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Campos said he’d seek to move the utility’s regular public board meetings, now held on Tuesday mornings, to evening hours that are more convenient for the public. He would give 20 percent of his commissioner compensation to area charity organizations and would not take the PUD’s health benefits. He said he would advocate for jobs-friendly utility policies.

• Sherry Erickson, 41, business manager at Erickson Structural Consulting Engineers, Vancouver.

Background and qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington State University.

On I-937: Erickson said renewable power is needed “for long-term sustainability” but that she voted against I-937 because it represented too dramatic of a change too quickly. Incorporating renewable energy should be driven by market-based needs and customer demands, she said. She also disagreed with the initiative’s exclusion of hydropower as a source of renewable energy.

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Erickson said she would advocate for technologies that would improve the storage of energy and help consumers track their use of energy. Likewise, it will be important for the region to empower consumers to measure their energy use in real-time rather than “waiting for our electric bill or water bill” every month, Erickson said. That ongoing consumer feedback would lead to wiser energy decisions, boosting conservation and bringing down costs, she said.

• Jim Malinowksi, 74, power utilities technology instructor at Clark College, Amboy.

Background and qualifications: 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’s the only candidate who’s previously run for the utility commission, in two races against Curtis, including one he lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. He said he’s the only candidate to regularly attend commission meetings.

Malinowski worked for Pacific Gas & Electric Company in California, serving in various roles including manager of transmission planning and manager of power control.

On I-937: Malinowski said his “no” vote wasn’t because he opposes development of cost-effective renewable energy. It was because of “provisions that could threaten our federal public power rights and could significantly increase our electric power rates that already are among the highest in the Pacific Northwest.”

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Malinowski said the utility’s board needs a person who’s capable of evaluating whether utility staff “is producing results that benefit ratepayers,” he said, and his skill-set enables him to do that.

And that skill-set is even more important, he said, when you consider that the utility is relying less on the Bonneville Power Administration for its power needs and more on its own management of complex, open-market purchases. “I understand (the utility’s) budgeting process and the challenges the utility faces,” Malinowski said.

• Helen Nowlin, 44, attorney, Vancouver

Background and qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from the University of Washington, law degree from Gonzaga University and a master’s degree in environmental and energy law from George Washington University.

On I-937: Nowlin said she supported the initiative because of its focus on moving toward renewables to reduce the use of fossil fuels and to help curb climate change. She said she’d support tweaks to the law that could include relaxing the requirement that utilities “buy a certain percentage of energy regardless of whether they need it.”

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Nowlin said she would work to position the utility so it’s ahead of the curve on policy and market changes. If she’d had a say in whether the utility should have built the River Road gas-fired plant, she said, she would have advised officials “to build or co-own a wind-generating plant in Eastern Washington instead.”

Nowlin said expanding wind power will be a key part of addressing the region’s energy, economic development and environmental needs. She said “the wave of the future” is going to be individual wind turbines located in urban centers that will provide clean energy to homes and businesses.

• Philip A. Parker, 65, retired electrician, Battle Ground

Background and qualifications: Graduate of the University of Tennessee’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Commission as a journeyman wireman. Also graduated from the JATC’s instructor training program. Served as adjunct faculty at Portland Community College training apprentice electricians. Executive board member of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and vice chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

On I-937: Parker calls I-937 “a good start.” However, he said, “green hydro power should have been included” in the initiative’s list of eligible sources of renewable energy. He added: “There should also be a cost-effective test for wind, solar and geothermal power included.”

Priorities, ideas and proposals: Parker said keeping power and water rates low for customers will be a top priority. “If we have any opportunity to go back and buy more guaranteed power from BPA, I would be a No. 1 advocate for that,” he said. “BPA is our best value, and our best hope for keeping rates low.”

• Jim West, 58, commercial real estate broker with Coldwell Banker Commercial — Jenkins Bernhardt Associates, Vancouver

Background and qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in economics from Willamette University. Has served on area nonprofits, including Vancouver USA Regional Tourism Board and Clark County Family YMCA.

On I-937: West, who voted “no,” said the initiative needs to be modified. “While the ballot measure claimed renewable power sources would be less expensive than more traditional sources, this has not been the case,” he said.

The initiative “gives no credit for conservation to fulfill the standards,” he said, and he felt it was mostly intended “to spur wind energy production, which certainly has been the result.”

Priorities, ideas and proposals: To boost public engagement, West said, he would seek to move at least one of the utility commission’s regular morning public hearings to 4:30 p.m. “so more people could attend.”

Aaron Corvin:;; 360-735-4518;