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PUD directors need to stick to approved general manager hiring process

Though the Columbia River People's Utility District has not had a full-time, permanent general manager since December 2014, it's encouraging the board did not toss aside its established procedure for hiring a general manager last week and simply make an appointment. Instead, the board delayed action on that front until later this summer.

Unquestionably there are flaws in the governance policy the Columbia River PUD board of directors narrowly adopted in late April. But the section outlining how the PUD board should recruit and hire the most qualified person for the role of general manager is not one of them.

We agree with Directors Dave Baker and Craig Melton that, while current interim general manager John Nguyen should be encouraged to apply and might be the best fit after being weighed against other qualified applicants, it would not be in the best interest of PUD ratepayers to appoint Nguyen without at least first determining whether or not there is a better person for the job. To bypass the hiring procedure for a general manager would be similar to awarding a contract for an expensive capital construction project without first soliciting bids. It’s just bad practice, and bad representation.

Along those lines, we would expect the directors to place in perspective a letter of support for Nguyen signed by 32 PUD employees and submitted to the board for consideration during a discussion of Nguyen’s possible appointment. The letter — delivered to the board and read aloud by Jennifer Nelson, the daughter of PUD Director Harry Price — cautions the board that a selection other than Nguyen could derail the “positive progress” that has occurred at the PUD since he was installed as interim general manager last August, hence causing uncertainty, reducing productivity and threatening to increase employee turnover.

The letter offers a compelling glimpse into the work dynamic at the PUD. On one hand, we can imagine a scenario in which an employee is asking other PUD employees to sign a letter of support for their boss, Nguyen. And here’s the catch: If you don’t sign it, Nguyen will know you didn’t sign it.

In March, there were 42 employees at the PUD, including Nguyen. Thirty-two signed the letter.

Secondly, the PUD directors serve for the benefit of the ratepayers who voted them into office. That’s it. When it comes to making decisions that could significantly influence PUD operations, they should be beholden to no other group — including the PUD employees. While we appreciate that a majority of PUD employees believe Nguyen is doing a good job and are pleased with his performance, and there is merit in considering the majority of employees’ desire to keep their preferred supervisor in his position, the elected directors need to consider many additional variables regarding the qualifications to continue to improve and advance the PUD. And, after all, it is the elected PUD directors’ job, and no others’, to assess Nguyen’s performance.

Nguyen may very well be the best person to lead the PUD into the future, but it’s hard to overlook the fact the PUD is currently embroiled in a $7 million lawsuit following his unilateral firing of the PUD’s four-person management team less than a month after his appointment, one of whom was an employee he had only recently sued. He says he acted alone, after about four weeks on the job as interim general manager. Make sense? Perhaps it does, and once the dust settles Nguyen, and the PUD, might come out of the ordeal all for the better. But it’s fair game for ratepayers to be critical of such decisions, as well as others, and to wonder whether they were made in the spirit of improving the PUD or settling old scores.

The PUD directors should stick to the general manager hiring policy they approved just last month and open the job to other qualified applicants. To do otherwise is a disservice to the PUD ratepayers.